In the past, reading to children was considered something you did when they began to talk and could hold a book themselves.

However, research carried out in the UK in the 1990s revealed that reading to babies from day one was an essential part of a child's intellectual development.

The study showed that children from households where reading was the norm enjoyed higher levels of literacy in later years and many more career options.

Better Beginnings promotes reading with children from the time they're born

In response to this groundbreaking study the State Library of Western Australia developed the Better Beginnings program.

Established in 2004 with the support of the State Government and Rio Tinto, Better Beginnings is a family literacy program that encourages parents to read to children from birth.

"Working in partnership with public libraries and child health nurses, we can be sure that babies born in Western Australia have access to Better Beginnings, providing them with a book pack and knowledge of their local libraries' story time and rhyme time programs to support their development," says Margaret Allen, CEO, State Library of Western Australia.

"A baby only has sight up to 30 centimetres for the first three months of their life and they can only pick up high-contrast colours," explains Jo-Anne Monaghan, program development librarian for the City of Melville.

"By having a book in your hand as you're giving your baby a cuddle, it will stimulate their developing senses. You only have to watch a baby around such bright colours to see the impact it's having."

The sound of a parent's voice and the rhythms and rhymes of language also have a soothing and stimulating effect. It also embeds the desire to hear stories and, eventually, to read themselves. "Reading to a baby is a lovely bonding time for parent and child," says Jo-Anne.

Reading a book to children Reading a book to children
The Better Beginnings programme in action

Every child in Western Australia deserves to have a book

Jo-Anne Monaghan, program development librarian, City of Melville

The family that reads together grows together

This understanding of the role reading plays in a child's earliest years has shaped the Better Beginnings programme.

At a baby's six-week check-up, the health worker gives parents and child the first of the free Better Beginnings book packs. And not long after, they can attend talks, story time and rhyme time sessions at their local library, given by Jo-Anne or her colleagues who deliver the Better Beginnings programme.

Over the next few years the child will receive more books and other materials to keep in step with their evolution as a reader and ensure literacy is central to their overall development.

But Better Beginnings doesn't simply target children. Its mission is to take the entire family on the journey toward fully functioning literacy, in which picking up a book is second nature.

"We now know that those children who grow up in households surrounded by books and by people who read regularly will themselves pick up the habits and become readers," says Jo-Anne.

"We encourage new parents to have some books with them in their nappy bags. So while you're waiting at the doctor's or you're in the park, you've got a book that you can share with your child."

Of course, Better Beginnings needs books to give out, which is why Jo-Anne and others involved in the programme are grateful for the support of Rio Tinto.

"Every child in Western Australia deserves to have a book," she says.

"Rio Tinto has been absolutely essential to the success of Better Beginnings." says Margaret Allen, "Not only have they helped us with funding, but they've also helped us to stretch our thinking, they've helped us with advice and they've challenged our assumptions."

Main image: Margaret Allen, CEO, State Library of Western Australia