Thirty Million Words initiative founder presents annual Sirridge Lecture

Dana Suskind, M.D., presented the 2019 William and Marjorie Sirridge Lecture on Sept. 19.

One of the best things parents can do for their young children to help them succeed in life is to talk to them. A lot.

Dana Suskind, M.D., has spent much of the past nine years advocating for early childhood development by focusing on the importance of language and the power of parent-talk and interaction to build children’s brains. The 1992 graduate of the UMKC School of Medicine discussed her career path at the 2019 William and Marjorie Sirridge Lecture on Thursday, Sept. 19, at the School of Medicine.

A professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago and director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implantation, Suskind is founder and co-director of TMW (Thirty Million Words) Center for Early Learning + Public Health. The program offers evidence-based interventions to optimize brain development in children from birth to five years of age, particularly those born into poverty. It combines education, technology and behavioral strategies for parents and caregivers to enhance the verbal interactions with their children.

As a cochlear implant surgeon, Suskind realized vast differences in her patients after undergoing the implant. Some grew to talk and communicate well while others didn’t. The gap resulted not only in some children having a much smaller vocabulary, but also impacted their IQ and test scores in the third grade.

While cochlear implants brought sound to a child’s brain, Suskind found that something else was needed to make that sound have meaning.

“I came to realize that during their first three years, the power of language is the power to build a child’s brain,” she said.

Suskind pointed out that most of the organs in the human body are fully formed at birth. That’s not so with the brain, which doesn’t fully develop for many years after birth. She said the brain is particularly active and rapidly developing during the first three years, making it important for young children to grow up in a language-rich environment.

“At no other time in life will brain development be so robust and active,” Suskind said.

In 2014, she wrote Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain. The book describes her study of how children develop communication skills and how those who thrive live in households where they hear millions of spoken words. Her book reached the number one spot on Amazon’s best-seller’s list for parenting and family reference.

Following medical school, Suskind completed her residency at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and a fellowship at Washington University Children’s Hospital.

She has received many awards for her work including the Weizmann Women for Science Vision and Impact Award, the SENTAC Gray Humanitarian Award, the LENA Research Foundation Making a Difference Award, the 2018 Chairman’s Award from the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the John D. Arnold, M.D., Mentor Award for Sustained Excellence from the Pritzker School of Medicine.

The Sirridge Lecture is named for William T. Sirridge, M.D., and his wife, Marjorie S. Sirridge, M.D., two of the UMKC School of Medicine’s original docents. The Sirridges viewed the humanities as an essential part of students’ medical training. In 1992, they established the Sirridge Office of Medical Humanities and Bioethics to merge the humanities with the science of medicine. Today, the school recognizes their dedication, compassion and advancement of patient care and medical education in Kansas City with the William and Marjorie Sirridge Lecture.