New parents Lauren and Maegan Jerr have read to their triplets Theodore, Conrad and Charlie every day since the babies were born prematurely at BWH last fall.
During a newborn’s time in the NICU, critical brain development is occurring, including the development of the pathways that control language skills. By reading to their babies, the Jerrs are not only bonding with them and reducing some of the stress of being in the NICU, but they’re also aiding in their children’s brain development.
“More than half of babies born at very low birth weight have language delays during childhood,” said Carmina Erdei, MD, a neonatologist in the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine. “This is not a coincidence, and there is something we can do about it.”
Terrie Inder, MD, MBChB, chair of Pediatric Newborn Medicine, and Erdei say that infants need frequent exposure to meaningful auditory experiences to ensure optimal early brain development. Studies show that preterm infants who are not exposed to language while in the NICU have lower language performance at age 2. In an effort to prevent language delays, the NICU is committed to promoting reading through a new effort informally called the Brigham Baby Academy.
“It’s our goal to ensure that each infant is read to at least once a day by a staff member or a parent,” said Erdei, who is co-organizing a book drive with NICU Nursing Director Marianne Cummings, MS, RN, to provide ample reading material for families.
Research points to the vast benefits of reading beginning at birth. In addition to advancing brain development, language skills and vocabulary, it can also build listening and memory skills. Through a snowball effect, Erdei explained, early language exposure increases reading proficiency by third grade, which is a strong predictor of high school graduation and career success.
It’s also an important way for parents and babies to bond. “Even when their eyes are closed, babies can hear and recognize their parents’ voices and are comforted by them, so reading helps them connect and relieve anxiety,” said Erin Gorham, BSN, RN, clinical nurse in the NICU.
Establishing routines is another way to enhance bonding, so staff encourage families to follow a daily bedtime routine that includes reading. The activity gives families a sense of normalcy during what can be a stressful and uncertain time, explained Gorham.
“The Brigham NICU gave us a book as part of our welcome packet, which was an important gesture in letting parents know just how important reading is,” said Maegan Jerr. “For us, it’s a family tradition we hope to continue for many years to come.”
With its book drive, the NICU hopes to increase awareness about the importance of reading and build its collection of books so they can be passed on to parents whose babies need them the most. “We are looking for new or gently used children’s books in any language,” said Cummings. “Staff have brought in books in Russian, Spanish and French Creole, from all over the world. Reading is something that all parents can do for their child that has a lifelong impact.”
You can donate a new or gently used children’s book to the NICU by bringing it to the Connors Center for Women’s Health security desk (Lower Pike), mailing it to BWH’s Pediatric Newborn Administration Office (75 Francis St., Boston, MA 02115) or contacting Paul Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about how you can help the Brigham Baby Academy.