NICU reading program helps heal preemies and parents

June 12, 2018 | by Cheryl Cranick
NICU reading program helps heal preemies and parents

Parents of a preemie baby often feel helpless in the NICU. While clinicians provide lifesaving treatment around the clock, a mother or father by the bedside asks, “What can I do to help?” At the Baylor University Medical Center neonatal care unit, the KangaREAD Program gives parents a purpose in the form of books.

It’s a play on the concept of “kangaroo care,” which encourages skin-to-skin contact between a parent and child, but with this program, the contact is words. Hearing words, any words, many words — it helps build a robust brain. For a parent with a child in the NICU, finding words can sometimes be a challenge. But with a book, all the parent has to do is read.

Bringing books to the NICU

reading in the nicu

Mustafa S. Suterwala, MD, a pediatrician and development specialist with 

Pediatrix Medical Group of Texas, an affiliate of MEDNAX, has always been an advocate for reading to infants. Premature babies may struggle with delays in speech and development, which is why Dr. Suterwala has prescribed reading for more than 20 years. Only recently was the practice formally introduced to the NICU through the KangaREAD Program.

In 2015, Rowena Cadungog, a nurse on his team, approached Dr. Suterwala with an idea to bring reading into the Baylor NICU. Cadungog had been a mother to preemies herself 15 years earlier, and she knew the value reading had on her twins’ success. She also remembers the stress relief it provided for her. Dr. Suterwala became an immediate champion for the cause.

“At its core, it’s a simple idea,” he said. “We all know the value of the spoken word on an infant’s brain development. What the KangaREAD Program does is formalize the concept and put it into practice for our NICU patients and their parents.” Baylor University Medical Center welcomed the idea and helped launch the program with a grant to purchase the first batch of books.

Rhyming Dr. Seuss books are a favorite, along with many other popular children’s stories that parents often remember from their own childhoods. Bilingual books are also available, meaning no parent is excluded from participating in this program. Beyond the book that gets each parent started, a family is able to add to a baby’s collection while in the NICU. The more words the better.

A wide-spread effect

The KangaREAD Program supports a developing baby’s brain through providing a vast number of words to hear and process; the benefit of this is well documented. But the second layer of care this program delivers is to the readers themselves: the parents. While clinicians can tell a parent to talk to a baby, stress and exhaustion are commonplace for NICU moms and dads. By placing a book in the hands of a parent, the KangaREAD Program replaces the need to search for the right words.

“About 30 percent of parents with a baby in the NICU experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. Suterwala. “This program can help can reduce a parent’s anxiety. They are often very excited by the KangaREAD Program. Reading is not just a way for parents to help, but also interact, and sometimes even solicit feedback from their baby.”

The Baylor NICU is only one of a handful of neonatal units to formalize a reading program, but the idea is catching on. “Every week, we receive five to ten emails from colleagues across the country eager to learn more about our KangaREAD Program,” he said. 

“In NICUs, we are very good at saving lives. That is what we do,” said Dr. Suterwala. “I believe the future of NICUs will be to focus not only on the immediate medical conditions, but also to help build the groundwork of essential development. Reading has always been fundamental for that, and by starting as early as the NICU, we can help premature babies bridge the gap to achieve greater success in school and ultimately life,” he said. “Innovation doesn’t have to be expensive or high-tech to be meaningful.”

If you are interested in bringing a reading program to your NICU, you may contact Dr. Suterwala at

Dr. Mustafa SuterwalaMustafa S. Suterwala, MD, has been with Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, for 16 years. He completed his medical degree at Grant Medical College at the University of Mumbai and his residency at Children's Hospital of Michigan. He is board certified in pediatrics.