Babies as young as nine months can benefit from books, according to a pilot study carried out by Birmingham University for the independent educational charity, the Book Trust. Free books and reading advice were given to 300 parents and carers of babies and their progress was tracked over the first five years, comparing the results with a control group.
Alexandra Strick of the Book Trust says: "The study showed that babies who handle big board books on their mother's lap not only start reading more quickly but show improved skills in other areas like identifying shapes. If babies see their book as a toy, it will reinforce the idea that books are fun."
Sainsbury's is putting its entire educational budget of Pounds 6 million over two years behind the Bookstart programme. The money will pay for books, training and support materials for mothers of the 700,000 babies born in the UK each year.
Health visitors will give mothers two free books and a Bookstart pack, which includes instructions on reading with your baby and an introduction to the local library.
"The project will bring long-term benefit to the community," says Esther Jackson, Sainsbury's marketing executive, "and is something we're proud to be part of."
The programme starts in Bir-mingham and all other big cities and will reach the rest of the UK by early 2000.