Shannon Nickinson: Program helps new parents build better readers

What if there were a simple way to tell new parents how important it is to talk to their babies?

A nonprofit in Martin and St. Lucie counties has been working for nearly 20 years to do just that with a BRAIN Bag.

Building Readiness Among Infants Now (BRAIN) stresses the power of words in the brain development of babies and gives parents the tools and understanding to harness that power.

It started with hospitals, said Kathy Derringer, vice president of Baby Steps.

Baby Steps manages the BRAIN Bag program under the umbrella of Helping People Succeed, an agency that coordinates an array of services for children in those two Central Florida counties.

“It is an extension of the hospital, labor-and-delivery experience,” Derringer said. “It is mentioned in prenatal classes and it is mentioned by a nurse in the hospital before the mom and baby leave.”

New moms get a home visit from a registered nurse in the first week after the baby is home.

It’s a health-and-safety visit to make sure mom and baby are doing well, to reinforce the importance of breastfeeding, to determine whether the baby has a safe place to sleep and to make sure moms who need additional help know where to go to get it.

Derringer said those visits reach 97 percent of newborn parents in Martin and St. Lucie counties: That’s the families of 3,092 babies born in 2015.

At the end of that visit, the nurse asks if they can visit again in two months.

That’s when the BRAIN Bag comes in, along with a developmental specialist who will spend at least an hour explaining the importance of talking and reading to babies.

The spoken word is critical to an infant’s brain growth. But many parents don’t understand its power, which puts their children at a disadvantage.

Children who are exposed to fewer words develop language skills more slowly, come to school behind their peers and are at-risk for staying behind throughout their school lives.

Derringer said those specialists made 2,400 BRAIN Bag visits last year,  reaching about 78 percent of those new families.

“What’s in the BRAIN Bag is the core of what we talk about during that second visit,” Derringer said.

It has:

  • A book that opens the conversation about the importance of reading to a baby every day.
  • A lullaby CD that opens the conversation about how music can stimulate a baby’s brain and how important a regular, relaxing bedtime routine helps set sleep patterns that are healthy for babies — and parents.
  • A rattle that opens the conversation about how important it is to play with your baby, to be focused when you are together and to stress the importance of good parent-child interaction.
  • A letter from the school district superintendent, congratulating the family and the importance of reading to that little would-be graduate for 20 minutes every day.
  • Tips on how to deal with crying babies.
  • A voter registration packet and a letter from the supervisor of elections, which opens to the door to demonstrating to the baby how to be a good citizen.

“The most important message is they have what it takes to be that baby’s best and first teacher,” Derringer said. “It’s about the relationship between the parent and child and what a difference that relationship can make.”

The visits are for families in every income bracket.

“When we go to visit doctors who’ve had babies, for example, staff get nervous,” Derringer said. “But what we found what they say is, ‘Thank you. We didn’t learn this stuff in medical school.’ “

The visits are followed up with a questionnaire sent every six months by mail or email with developmental milestones by age for babies to meet.

The Martin County BRAIN Program has a $300,000 budget with $150,000 of that for nurses, $15,000 to $20,000 covering BRAIN bag materials, the rest is staff, operating, and administrative.

The St. Lucie costs, Derringer said, are comparable.

The materials for the BRAIN bags are often donated by civic groups and foundations.

It may seem like a small thing.

It may seem like common sense.

But in the joyful and overwhelming first few months when you are a parent, little things mean a lot.

Knowing that you live in a community that thinks enough of you and your baby to take a couple of hours out of the day to make sure you have the tools you need to build a better reader, could be invaluable.

That is more than just a small thing. It is a loud and proud statement about what we value.

And how far we are willing to go to prove it.

• • •

Shannon Nickinson is a fellow at the Studer Community Institute, a Pensacola nonprofit dedicated to using journalistic strategies to improve the quality of life in the community, and is editor of Follow her on Twitter @snickinson. Column courtesy of Context Florida.  

Shannon Nickinson


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