When the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health speaks in Columbus next week, Brenda Fitzgerald will be discussing a kind of nutrition that has nothing to do with food or vitamins.
It is language nutrition.
"We are working to get more mothers to talk to their babies, to read to them. It is critical to a young child's brain development. Once behind, the child may never catch up to others in school," Fitzgerald said.
Language nutrition will be just a small portion of the commissioner's presentation.
Fitzgerald will deliver her continuing medical education program - "Women's Healthcare in Georgia: Successes and Opportunities for Change" - on April 28 from 12:30-2 p.m. in the conference center at Midtown Medical Center.
Fitzgerald will discuss state data on maternal-child health, key state initiatives for improving women's healthcare, opportunities for women's health partnerships between public and private sectors, and priorities for improvement.
The Columbus Regional Health Foundation is presenting this event through the Stamey Lectureship Series.
Established in 2003 by an endowment to honor retired obstetrician/gynecologist Charles Stamey, the series provides educational programs for physicians, nurses, clinical staff and the public.
Those interested in attending the free event must make a reservation by Friday by calling 706-571-1112 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Georgia DPH says that in the first few years of life, a baby's brain is forming the neural connections for language that will shape its capacity to learn.
Early exposure to language has a strong effect on vocabulary development by age 3, which is a key predictor of reading comprehension by the end of third grade.
Fitzgerald, who is an obstetrician/gynecologist, said research has shown that by age 3, children born into low-income families hear far fewer words than those from more affluent homes, and the gap begins appearing as early as 18 months.
"That is a huge difference and it affects kids all the way through high school and beyond," she said.
To help mothers, the Georgia DPH has begun a large-scale reading-to-learn initiative.
"Talk With Me Baby" encourages mothers - especially those in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program - to speak to their children because the more words mothers speak, sing or read to their baby, the faster the baby will learn to talk and read.
Partners with Georgia DPH include the Emory University Department of Pediatrics and the Marcus Autism Center.
WIC is a special supplemental nutrition program of the United States Department of Agriculture which provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, as well as infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk.
Here, it is conducted by the Columbus Health Department. Fitzgerald said about 60 percent of Georgia women with babies use WIC.
She said posters are being put up as reminders to read to children, and a series of videos has been produced. "Early development is very important. It can affect a person the rest of their life," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also deals with early development, and said she will address the problem of women having babies at 37 weeks or earlier instead of going to full term.
Fitzgerald said some women elect to do have their baby early because they are "tired of being pregnant," but data shows preterm birth may cause slower brain development and play a part in other health problems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said growth in many organ systems continues right up until birth and that preterm birth can lead to breathing problems, feeding difficulties and neurological disabilities.
Fitzgerald said she is glad to see a large decline in Georgia of chosen preterm births and credited organizations such as the March of Dimes and Georgia Hospital Association for their work.
"The change has been dramatic, and that's good," she said.