A parent reading a book to their child
“Research shows that physicians often skip parent education during [baby] exams, which is why we’re trying to close this gap and find other ways to educate parents,” says Stephanie Reich, assistant professor of education. Steve Zylius/University Communications

Stephanie Reich channeled her inner Mother Goose recently to come up with rhymes about the dangers of plastic bags and household cleaning products – all in the name of research. “It’s hard to make a happy rhyme about not suffocating your child,” notes the UC Irvine assistant professor of education.

She and her colleagues produced five picture books combining colorful illustrations and rhyming text with parenting lessons to evaluate whether they’d boost the safety practices and health habits of new mothers. Study results appear in the January-February issue of Academic Pediatrics.

The books – designed to be read aloud daily to babies – feature content on infants’ physical, cognitive and emotional development; home, car and outdoor safety; maternal self-care; breast-feeding benefits; discipline strategies; and nutrition.

One, for example, reminds moms to install smoke detectors and replace their batteries every six months, while another shows a woman checking the temperature of her baby’s bathwater with her wrist.

Educating new mothers about household safety can save lives. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, after the neonatal period, unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for babies and toddlers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians use doctor visits to inform parents about environmental dangers and safety practices. “Research shows that physicians often skip parent education during exams,” Reich says, “which is why we’re trying to close this gap and find other ways to educate parents.”

Greg Duncan, Distinguished Professor of education, and doctoral student Emily Penner worked on the blind study with Reich. They recruited first-time moms in their third trimester of pregnancy and randomly assigned them to an educational book group, a noneducational book group or a no-book group – purportedly to gauge the effect on babies of parents reading aloud to them.

In visits when participants’ children were 2, 4, 6, 9, 12 and 18 months old, researchers completed home safety assessments, looking for the presence (and number) of sharp and small objects, plastic bags, long cords, poisonous substances, large uncovered containers of water (buckets, fish tanks, etc.) and safety devices (cabinet latches, window guards, etc.).

They found that women in the educational book group were 40 percent more likely to engage in safety behaviors that involve little time or expense – like putting away sharp objects – than those in the no-book group.

“The educational books did make homes less risky when it came to simple practices, but there were no differences among the groups for practices requiring time, money or hassle – such as installing gates or cabinet latches,” Reich says.

The mother of a 4-year-old daughter and a 5-week-old son, she brought some of her own insights to the study. “Reading to babies can be very repetitive,” Reich says, “and children’s books are a lot more fun to read aloud if you have to act out characters or make certain sounds.

“We’re interested in further studying books that elicit more engaging behavior from the mom and baby.”