PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Just weeks after his birth, Alexander Abrego listened night after night to his parents reading aloud.

Fifteen months later, hardly a night goes by without Alexander picking up a book and saying, ``Mom, Mom. Book, book.''

Alexander's love is a product of his parents' interest in a club that promotes reading aloud to children. The local program, called Beginning With Books, and a growing number like it around the country offer free books and coaching on how to read to children, even when they are newborns and even when parents have limited literacy skills.

Studies show the stimulation provided by reading helps the littlest babies build permanent brain mass. And infants benefit from hearing the cadence of parents' speech and the bonding with parents during story time.

``What's important is the love of words, the sound of your voice, the enthusiasm that's conveyed,'' said Susan Roman, executive director of the Association for Library Service to Children, which has developed a national program for families of any income level called Born to Read.

A random survey done in 1996 for Reading Is Fundamental, a federally funded national program, showed only 50 percent of parents read daily to their children, regardless of income level.

Even well-educated parents may not understand the value of reading to newborns.

``They know that reading is important, but how early can you read?'' Roman said.

Born to Read is just getting off the ground nationally, but Beginning With Books has served 7,000 low-income families in Pittsburgh since 1984, so researchers have been able to track the successes of some of the children.

A small study by the University of Pittsburgh in 1988 indicated that babies who hear stories regularly may do better in school.

Dana Madison, who volunteers to read to children at a library through Beginning with Books, said children whose parents regularly read to them have an easier time sitting and focusing.

The others are ``apt to run around the library,'' she said. ``You can almost tell immediately the children who have been read to.''

Beginning With Books founder Elizabeth Segel tells parents not to be discouraged if babies fidget, grab at books or try to chew on pages. She explains that toddlers who interrupt or walk away from a story are probably still listening.

In a reading group, Alexander's mother, Marylinn Pastrana, learned to point to pictures and words as she read them so that her baby could make connections. Group leaders recommended books and distributed a free book at each weekly session.

By the time Alexander was 3 or 4 months old, he was smiling at some sounds _ such as animal noises _ his mother would make while reading. By 9 months, he could say ``bird'' and ``ice cream'' and link pictures to the real things, his mother said.

Karleen Preator, a psychologist at the child development unit of Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, said Alexander spoke his first words earlier than average but on schedule for children with verbal parents.

Ms. Pastrana wants her son to treasure reading so that he will excel in school.

``I want him to enjoy reading _ not like, `I HAVE to read a book,''' Ms. Pastrana said.

Reading may even help parents, and not just by strengthening the parent-child bond.

``For a lot of parents, especially teen parents, it improves their own literacy skills,'' said Rachael Walker, spokeswoman for Reading Is Fundamental. ``They are reading something that might be just at their own reading level. It helps them have more confidence.''

Beginning With Books was founded 14 years ago, but elsewhere at that time, ``the focus really wasn't there on reading to really young children,'' Ms. Walker said.

Recent brain research, however, has suggested that reading to babies, whose brain circuitry is being formed, enhances their emotional and social development as well as boosting vocabulary and later educational success.

``There's no age at which you shouldn't be reading to a child,'' Ms. Walker said. ``A lot of programs tell parents it's not too early to start when they're still in the womb.''

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Books recommended for reading to babies by Beginning With Books:

_ ``Dear Zoo'' by Rod Campbell

_ ``The Very Hungry Caterpillar'' by Eric Carle

_ ``The Lifesize Animal Counting Book'' by Dorling Kindersley, publishers

_ ``In the Small, Small Pond'' by Denise Fleming

_ ``Time for Bed'' by Mem Fox

_ ``Where's Spot?'' by Eric Hill

_ ``Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young'' by Jack Prelutsky, editor

_ ``Mouse Count'' by Ellen Walsh

_ ``Cookie's Week'' by Cindy Ward