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MomMD Spotlight: Dr. Dana Suskind and Her New Book: Thirty Million Words

MomMD Spotlight: Dr. Dana Suskind and Her New Book: Thirty Million Words

Dana Suskind , author of the book, Thirty Million Words: Building A Child’s Brain , (Dutton, September 2015) , is Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago, Director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, and Founder and Director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative. Based on scientific research that shows the critical importance of early language exposure on the developing child, Thirty Million Words helps parents enhance their home language environment in order to optimize their child’s brain development and, therefore, his or her ability to learn. An evidence-based intervention, Thirty Million Words is supported by a broad coalition of public and private partnerships and is an extension of Dr. Suskind’s Project ASPIRE, which she created to assure that her patients from disadvantaged backgrounds reached their full listening and spoken language potentials. Dr. Suskind’s ultimate goal, and that of her dedicated team, is to help all children reach their full potentials and to close the ever-widening achievement gap.

Below is our interview with Dr. Dana Suskind:

1. Tell us about your research?

The Thirty Million Words® Initiative (TMW) is an innovative parent-directed program designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and impact his or her future. Parent language is the single most powerful tool in shaping the brain of a child. It is a natural and unlimited resource that remains widely untapped in public health interventions. Realizing that a socioeconomic gap influenced the cognitive development of all children, hearing and deaf alike, I decided that my greatest contribution as a physician would be to dedicate my research and clinical life to addressing the problem of health disparities, specifically early language disparities, in order to find positive, effective ways of eliminating them.

Our multimedia interventions, developed in both English and Spanish, translate emerging brain science into practical lessons to increase parent knowledge of child development and provide caregivers with an easy to remember—and easy to understand—set of evidence-based strategies that can be readily implemented into daily routines. Weekly linguistic feedback, video modeling, and goal setting engage caregivers in tracking their success. Tested in randomized control study, our flagship curriculum, TMW-Home Visiting, was shown to improve language outcomes for both parents and children alike. We have since adapted it for use in hospitals for the newborn hearing screening, pediatric clinics, and Early Head Start (forthcoming). All of our interventions map onto existing social and health infrastructures—like childcare centers and pediatric well-baby visits—to strengthen children’s early language environments. We work across three tiers of impact: individual, community, and population level.

TMW is deeply rooted in scientific inquiry and research, with continual monitoring and honing of our interventions to assure the best possible outcomes for parents and children. We believe good science and translational research can fuel positive social change and all parents and communities deserve access to this life-changing information.

2. At what point in your career did you decide to write this book and why?

I began my surgical career as a pediatric head and neck surgeon specializing in cochlear implantation. I soon discovered, though, that a successful cochlear implant didn’t always ensure a child’s success in learning to speak or understand language. My search to understand why led me to encounter the concept of the 30 million-word gap. Research has shown that by their fourth birthday, children of lower socioeconomic status have heard about 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. This profound disparity has a negative impact on everything from literacy to school readiness to academic achievement. As I mention in the book, taking the Hippocratic oath meant that my obligation to my patients didn’t end when I finished operating; it ended when my patients were well. I knew that it was time to step out of the comfort of the operating room into the wider world of social science in order to truly affect a change for our nation’s children. This book describes that transition and its result: the Thirty Million Words Initiative.

3. What’s the take away message or significance/purpose of your book?

This book explains why the most important—and astoundingly simple—thing you can do for your child’s future success is to talk to him or her. It discusses the science of brain development and how to enrich a child’s language environment and build his or her brain.

4. Tell us a little bit about yourself as a mother and an MD?

I have three absolutely beautiful children: Genevieve, 16, Asher, 13, and Amelie, 10. Everything I learned came from my children. They’re my greatest support.

5. How has being a mom and MD given perspective for this book?

It made me focus on how you translate science into action. Too often science is hidden away in ivory towers and as a mom and an MD, I wanted that research out and accessible. I wanted it to impact all children, not just my own.

6. How do you handle the work/life balance as a mom, an MD, and writing a book?

I have an incredible support system of family and friends. My kids are awesome. My collaborators and TMW staff are some of the most supportive, diligent, humane, and creative people I know.

7. What advice would you give to other young female MDs?

Work-life balance. I can’t underestimate the value of that. Proximity to work is also important as are good support systems. It’s also good for us all to remember that when things fail, it is an opportunity to grow.

8. How do our readers purchase the book?

The book can be purchased through all major book retailers. Please see for more details and links to purchase.

9. Do you have any speaking engagements coming up that they might attend?

For the most up-to-date event details, visit New events are being added frequently!

September 17 (Thursday) Chicago, IL


Family Action Network event with Michael Kaufman (RSVP)

Location: Loyola Law School Ceremonial Courtroom

Address: 25 E. Pearson St, Chicago IL 60611

September 17 (Thursday) Winnetka, IL

7:00-9:00 PM

Family Action Network event with Diana Rauner (OPEN)

Location: The Skokie School

Address: 520 Glendale Ave, Winnetka, IL

September 21 (Monday) Chicago, IL

11 AM-12:30 PM

Chicago Public Library with Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Register with Eventbrite)

Address: 400 S State St, Chicago, IL

Contact: Patrick Molloy, 312-747-4051 /


September 24 (Thursday) Evanston, IL

5:30-7:30 PM

The Evanston Community Foundation/ The Evanston Public Library/ Cradle to Career (OPEN)

Location: The Rotary Building Auditorium

Address: 1560 Sherman Avenue, Evanston, IL 60201.


September 30 (Wednesday) – Washington, DC (OPEN—Tickets must be purchased prior to event)

7:00-8:30/9:00 PM

Arne Duncan and Dana with Politics & Prose

Location: Quaker Meeting House and Arts Center in the Robert L. Smith Meeting Room

Address: 3825 Wisconsin Avenue NW Washington DC


October 5 (Monday) – Providence

6-8:00 PM

Providence Talks with Mayor Jorge Elorza and the Bloomberg Foundation (OPEN)

Location: Brown University’s School of Urban Education

Address: Brown, Providence, RI

October 15 (Thursday) – Chicago


Chicago Ideas Week (Tickets on Sale Sept 8)

Location: Venue SIX10 (610 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago IL)