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Reading to babies takes center stage at Beacon Children’s Hospital during national NICU Read-a-Thon

Laura Meyer reads to her granddaughter, Hazel.

Laura Meyer loves so many things about being a Newborn Intensive Care Unit nurse and taking care of the hospital’s tiniest patients. ‘Bath night’ and reading are two of her absolute favorites.

“When I walk down the halls and hear families reading aloud to their babies, it makes me smile because I know they are being held, having great human interaction and learning all at the same time,” says Meyer, a long-time RN at the Beacon Children’s Hospital NICU.

The entire NICU team hopes to see and hear a lot of reading happening in the NICU this week and next.

This is the second year Beacon Children’s Hospital is taking part in the Babies with Books NICU Read-A-Thon, a friendly competition that starts today at more than 120 children’s hospitals across the country. Babies with Books is a teen-led organization based in Portland, Ore., whose mission is to support NICU families and babies through literacy.

The 10-day event encourages moms, dads, grandparents, siblings, as well as the clinical team to pick up a book and read to the babies who are in the hospital at this time. The read-a-thon is also aimed at building NICU morale, especially during the isolating time of the pandemic.

Based upon medical research on the benefits of reading with infants in the NICU, our first of its kind teen-led NICU book rounds program builds bonds between parents and babies during a time of crisis and creates normalcy in the ICU.

Parents of premature babies often feel scared and helpless, but reading is one way moms and dads can become more confident in their ability to support their infant when so much feels out of their hands.

“Parents often are overwhelmed when they come to our NICU and they want to know what they can do for their babies,” said Maggie Erickson, the NICU RN who is leading the read-a-thon at Beacon. “Last year, we saw parents reading to their babies in cribs and isolettes. It made me feel so happy, because the bonding was visible.”

In addition to fostering family bonding, reading early on to infants can positively impact  brain development and language development. “Parents reading to premature babies makes their babies calmer and immediately improves their oxygen levels,” said Dr. Robert White, Director of Beacon Children’s Hospital Newborn Intensive Care Unit. “Long-term, premature babies have improved language abilities when tested at 18 months of age.”

Of the nearly 40 NICUs that participated in the event last year, 97 percent said the read-a-thon encouraged them to start or expand a reading program in their hospitals. In addition, studies have shown that when physicians partner with and provide literacy materials to parents, parents are 2.5 times more likely to read to their children.

The generosity of donors in our community allowed the Beacon Health Foundation to support the purchase of new books for our NICU families to read to their babies. These books are scheduled to be delivered today, to add to the NICU library just in time for the read-a-thon.

“Reading books gives you a great opportunity to put language into their brains at a very young age. I always try to read to my babies if there is a read-a-thon or not,” Meyer says. “It is one of the many perks of being a NICU nurse. You get to snuggle with them and read them a book. What could be better?”

About Heidi Prescott-Wieneke