Parenting Matters: The Benefits of Reading to Toddlers and Preschoolers

By Parnell Donahue
Parnell Donahue
Parnell Donahue
Dr. Parnell Donahue is a pediatrician; a military veteran; an author of four books, a blog, and “”; he writes The parenting matters Podcast and is host of WBOU's Parenting Matters show. He and his wife, Mary, have four adult children: all are Ph.D.s, two are also M.D.s. Contact him at
September 3, 2021 Updated: September 5, 2021

Many years ago, a teen girl brought her 6-month-old baby to see me because he cried a lot and Mom was worried. We talked about the baby’s symptoms, his care and diet, and I began to examine him. As I felt his belly, I asked, “Does your tummy hurt?”

Mom laughed. “Babies can’t talk!” she exclaimed.

“You’re right,” I said. “They can’t, but they can hear, and they learn to talk from hearing people talk to them.”

I assured Mom that baby wasn’t sick and we talked about ways to comfort him. Then we had a long talk about the importance of talking and reading to babies.

Hopefully, after our discussion, she left with new ideas about talking and reading to her baby.

Children begin to learn early, even before they’re born, and 90 percent of their brain growth occurs by age 3. Their personalities, learning style, and many of their values are formed by the age of 6. Parents have a major role in a child’s character formation. Kids without a father in the home are more prone to deviant behavior and are slower learners than those from a two-parent home.

Shortly after seeing the young woman and her baby, I came across an article explaining that children whose caregivers talk with them not only talk earlier, but are better students, and are more successful throughout their lives than those who have little speech contact with adults. The article also said that kids who are read to as infants do better in school than those who rarely saw the inside of a book. Furthermore, reading to infants before the age of 9 months was determined to be the only difference between a group of students that graduated high school with honors and a group that didn’t graduate.

I have been quoting that article for more than a half-century, and no longer have a copy, but reading to kids of any age makes sense. As a pediatrician, I have seen that old thesis proven again and again.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Early Childhood in a 2014 policy statement wrote, “All families need to hear the important message that reading aloud to their children is crucial, especially in an era in which competing entertainment imperatives, such as screen time (television, cinema, video games, and computers), may limit family interactions and live language exposures of even very young children.”

They also advised pediatricians to partner “with other child advocates to influence national messaging and policies that support and promote these key early shared-reading experiences.”

Recently, the AAP’s scientific journal, Pediatrics, published four articles on the importance of reading to toddlers and preschoolers. Two of the studies involved children in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and those in the Reach Out and Read program. The others were commentaries on the studies.

One study concluded that “a program combining literacy anticipatory guidance at clinic visits and more books in the home can potentially improve kindergarten readiness.”

The other study in this issue showed that reading to infants and preschoolers also delays their “addiction” to screens. It went on to say that “greater screen use at 24 months was associated with lower reading at 36 months [and] 60 months.”

Reading to infants and preschoolers is essential because it calms and relaxes kids, it easily becomes a bed-time ritual that makes going to bed a happy time, it has a large impact on children’s later academic achievement, and it promotes important parent-child engagement during sensitive periods of development, but, best of all, it nourishes the love between reader and child.

Readers may be aware that Dolly Parton’s father was illiterate, and because of this, she wanted to do all she could to help kids learn to read. She began by sending a book to every baby born in her county in east Tennessee at birth and every month until they turned 5. Soon Tennessee’s governor made all Tennessee kids eligible for this excellent program.

A big thank you to Dolly Parton! She has often said she has a big, happy heart, and she demonstrated her generosity by establishing the Imagination Library in 1995. Through it, 160 million books were sent to 1.8 million children in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland.

A similar program, Reach Out and Read (ROR), was started 30 years ago by Drs. Robert Needlman and Barry Zuckerman, who observed that many of their youngest patients were missing out on opportunities for development in the critical first years of life.

Today, 34,000 pediatric clinicians at 6,400 clinical locations nationally distribute the books at their well-child visits. Every year, they reach 4.8 million children and families and distribute more than 7.4 million children’s books. Fifty percent of the books go to low-income families.

Because of Dolly’s Imagination Library, and the Reach Out and Read program, no child should be deprived of the benefits of being read to as an infant. I’m hopeful the baby boy I saw many years ago has his grandkids enrolled in one of these programs and reads to them every day.

To donate to or enroll your child or grandchild in one of these wonderful organizations, see the contact information below.

Reach Out and Read
89 South St., Suite 201
Boston, MA 02111

The Dollywood Foundation
111 Dollywood Lane
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863

Dr. Parnell Donahue is a pediatrician; a military veteran; an author of four books, a blog, and “”; he writes The parenting matters Podcast and is host of WBOU's Parenting Matters show. He and his wife, Mary, have four adult children: all are Ph.D.s, two are also M.D.s. Contact him at