Aidan Chen

Aidan Chen displays one of the books donated to the NICU.

Ever since Aidan Chen was a young child, he’s had a love for reading. Wanting to share his passion for literature and the written word with others, he recently collected and delivered a large donation of children’s books—600, to be exact—to the Brigham’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for our tiniest patients and their families to enjoy.

“Even very small babies need books,” said Chen, 16, a junior at Weston High School. “I love that through my donation I am able to help one baby at a time build their first library.”

His visit last month marked the second time Chen has contributed to the unit’s Brigham Baby Academy—a program introduced in 2016 that seeks to improve neurodevelopment of NICU babies and help families bond with their babies by reading, talking and singing to them every day. During their hospital stay and upon discharge from the hospital, NICU babies and their families are gifted new books for parents to continue reading with their infants at home.

Carmina Erdei, MD, medical director of the NICU’s Growth and Development Unit and neonatologist in the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine, who oversees the Brigham Baby Academy, explained that babies in the womb are listening to their mother’s voice and other family members for many hours a day. For most healthy, full-term newborns, that practice continues without interruption after birth and plays a notable role in the rapid brain development that occurs in infancy and early childhood.

On the other hand, babies who require acute care in the NICU—and need to remain hospitalized for several weeks or months—have significantly less exposure to that form of auditory stimulation. Through the Brigham Baby Academy, the NICU is creating the opportunity for some of these therapeutic experiences to occur for its littlest patients.

“We do think that reading and meaningful auditory exposure is medicine,” Erdei said.

For Chen, who hopes to be a doctor when he’s older, his latest donation to the program is just one chapter of a bigger story. As a research intern at the Brigham in 2017, he learned about the NICU and its commitment to ensuring each infant is read to at least once a day by staff or a family member.

To support the program, Chen created the GoFundMe fundraiser “Books for the Babies.” He continues to collect donations to purchase books for Boston-area NICUs and military families through events sponsored by the March of Dimes.

Sarah Wood and baby Hayden

Erdei said Chen’s latest donation couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Our shelves were getting quite bare, and we are incredibly grateful for Aidan’s efforts and donations,” Erdei said. “Because of him, we are able to spread the literacy message to so many families. He’s incredible.”

During his latest visit to the NICU, Erdei introduced him to two families and their babies who received books through the Brigham Baby Academy.

Sarah Wood was reading a book to her infant daughter, Hayden, a patient in the NICU, when Chen stopped by for a visit. An educator, Wood said she’s thrilled the Brigham created the reading program because not only does it help babies and their families bond, but it also sets infants up for success later in life. She began reading to her daughter before she was born. Some of Wood’s favorite books to read to Hayden are Corduroy, Polar Express and Goodnight Moon.

“As a teacher, I am always trying to instill the importance of reading to children,” Wood said. “The more language and the more words that your child hears in these formative years, the more effective communicators they will become. Having books available in the NICU is wonderful.”