Dawn Mendoza began reading to her two daughters a couple of times each week when they were still in the womb. She continued to read the same books to the girls, now 16 and 19 years old, after they were born. 

Mendoza, a pediatric occupational therapist for more than 25 years, understood through her training and work with young children the importance to childhood development from the simple act of reading. It is, she said, much more than words on a page.

“Studies show the baby can hear you and process your voice,” she said about reading to babies in utero. “Of course they can’t understand what you’re saying, but they hear the cadence and the sound of your voice.”

Mendoza, who also owns a Fort Mill yoga studio that incorporates books into its classes for children, said both of her girls became avid readers. “There was reading at bedtime, and sometimes during the day,” she said. “It was just wonderful, and we looked forward to it every night.”

She has continued to promote reading among children through her support of the Early Learning Partnership’s Read Out and Read program. Her business, Movement, Mindfulness and Me on Gold Hill Road, has collected donations to support the program that serves children through 10 York County pediatric practices.

ELP’s Read Out and Read promotes reading and bonding between parents and children from birth to 5 years at their pediatric well child visits. Medical providers also talk about the benefits of reading and bonding.

Through ELP’s collaboration with the national ROR office and its ROR-Carolinas affiliate, ELP provides training and children’s books that are diverse and age and language appropriate. ELP also supports the medical team, which promotes bonding, early brain development, and a love of learning in young children and families.

Mendoza, who has worked with the families of young children as an occupational therapist, and also as a certified yoga instructor for children, said Reach Out and Read does much more than just promote literacy. 

“Reach Out and Read is getting to our youngest community members,” said Mendoza, a member of the ELP board. “From birth on, there are so many things that are happening before a child begins to understand the words on a page.”

She said the deep touch pressure of sitting in someone’s lap is very calming and comforting to a baby or young child. The social interaction of reading, looking at pictures, turning pages and talking about the story also plays a role.

“It’s so important that you hold your baby, and touch your baby and interact with your baby and point to pictures for your baby,” she said. Those actions help a child develop a visual gaze and depth perception, part of both visual and motor development, she said.

“It’s super important for the overall development of the child at a much younger age than some parents realize,” she said. “It promotes growth of a child’s visual system, and visual awareness as well as awareness of their body in space.”

Children also gain comfort and reassurance from reading with a parent, she said.

“When a child is upset and crying, what’s the first thing you do? We pick them up, pat them on the back,” she said. “When a child sits in someone’s lap and they’re reading a book before bed, it’s the same calming. It tells the body it’s time to relax, and that it’s safe.”

Reading time is also a time for parents and children to bond.

“There is definitely an emotional connection both parents and caregivers and children experience from a physical standpoint and from reading, the child understanding facial expressions and inflection in the tone of voice,” she said. “It’s the development of early emotional and positive reinforcement.”

Reading with a parent is also a positive experience they will remember, she said. “They associate the feel-good feelings of cuddling and reading with their reading experience when they are older,” she said.

Through Reach Out and Read, Mendoza said families can obtain both the books they need and the information about the importance of reading. “It’s a valuable program for our community that I think should be supported.”

Contact ELP if you have stories to share about your ROR experience at your pediatric practice.