Parents expecting a baby don’t imagine that he or she will be premature or ill and require special care from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). When this happens, an overwhelming flood of emotions, such as fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow, guilt and helplessness, overcome these parents. They are quickly introduced to the NICU, not knowing what to expect or what they can do to help their baby’s situation. Little do they know, there’s something simple, yet significant, they can do to participate in their baby’s well-being and development: read to them.
“Sometimes when you’re a parent at a NICU bedside, you’re kind of at a loss of what to do and how to help your baby,” said Christine Aune, M.D., NICU medical director at St. Luke’s Baptist Hospital and Pediatrix® Developmental Medicine of San Antonio. “It’s scary. Parents are often timid. They feel like the world is watching them interact with their child, and reading to their baby gives them a strong sense of purpose. It’s something they can do that has a positive and meaningful impact.”
In 2020, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, NICUs around the country experienced many changes. One of the most significant was severe visitation restrictions that didn’t allow other family members to visit NICU babies. It left parents with a rollercoaster of emotions, feeling alone and powerless.
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Babies with Books read-a-thon
With the visitation restrictions, the timing couldn’t have been better for teen-led Babies with Books to launch its first annual NICU read-a-thon. The read-a-thon is a 10-day friendly competition among NICUs in the United States and other countries, such as Malaysia and the United Kingdom, whose parents read aloud to their babies.
“The read-a-thon gives parents a sense of purpose at the bedside,” said Dr. Aune. “We see a big difference in the babies. Their autonomic nervous system literally responds to their parents reading to them. It’s a very positive, rewarding thing, and it helps parents who feel a little bit lost know what they can do.”
The read-aloud sessions not only give parents a sense of worth concerning their baby’s health and progress, according to Babies with Books, it also supports infant brain development, promotes family bonding and reduces stress.
In 2020, 39 NICUs participated in the competition, of which 97% were encouraged to start or expand a NICU reading program. Last year, participating NICUs more than doubled to include 101 teams, including several Pediatrix practices.
Inspired by the Babies with Books read-a-thon, the NICU team at St. Luke’s didn’t want the reading to end after the 10-day competition, so it developed the NICU Read To Me Project. The project addressed vital issues facing the NICU, including:
- Babies weren’t receiving ample voice stimulation.
- Infants were continually subjected to numerous sounds from alarms and monitors.
- Parents were spending increased time on mobile devices.
The NICU Read To Me Project encourages parents to spend time holding their babies and reading aloud to them to promote stronger bonds and stimulate cognitive and social-emotional development. The project isn’t just for parents and babies. As visitation restrictions ease, all visitors are encouraged to participate.
“There are so many fears in the NICU and so much uncertainty,” said Dr. Aune. “Every positive interaction you can give a family and our patients is a great thing. And this is one that comes at such a minimal cost for such a big outcome. Again, it gives the parents a sense of usefulness and accomplishment and something to do to support their baby’s development. We hope it starts a journey that continues at home after the NICU stay. It’s something parents and their children can cherish, and it helps with their success in school and so on. Anything we can do to help that development early on is great.”
Beyond National Reading Month in March, the 2022 Babies with Books read-a-thon will take place in September.