While many believe that babies enter the world with a clean slate, so to speak, that’s not the case. Babies can actually hear – and learn – in utero, weeks before they’re born. Studies show associations between what the babies are exposed to before birth, starting from as early as five months in the pregnancy, and their intellectual development. Based on this research, soon-to-be moms are encouraged to talk, read, and, in general, communicate with their babies while pregnant.
But babies born prematurely can lose this important part of their growth and, as a result, are at high risk of language delay and learning disorders. “These babies can be years behind their peers before they even start elementary school,” said Laura Rubinos, MD, a fellow in Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine.
Now, Babies & Books, a new program in HUP’s intensive care nursery (ICN), encourages parents to read to their newborns to help them regain some of what they missed from their premature birth. “We want to get parents in the habit of reading to their babies in the ICN and hopefully continue the practice when they go home,” said Rubinos, who created the program. “Providing a stimulating environment for babies helps the baby’s intellectual development. The association is very powerful.”
The program also provides a second important benefit. “When babies are very sick or premature, parents feel they can’t contribute anything to the baby’s care. The sense of helplessness is a recurring theme,” she said. “Most love the idea of reading, knowing that they can do something that will help their baby’s brain.”
“Even at these very early stages, this exposure to language is beneficial to the language development of preterm infants,” said Lori Christ, MD, assistant medical director of the ICN.
On a newborn’s admission to the ICN, each family receives a welcome packet which contains educational handouts on the importance of reading to even the youngest of babies in the ICN. Parents also receive training on the proper way to read to their infants, with a goal of 10 minutes twice daily. When parents can’t be there to reach that goal, others fill in the gap, including members of the ICN staff and students from the Cornfeld Pediatric Interest Group at the Perelman School of Medicine, who volunteer their time weekly. “It’s a tangible way to make a difference,” said first-year med student Marybeth Keiser.
Though premature, the infants are aware of the interaction. “You can tell they’re listening,” Rubinos said. “Some remain quiet but their vital signs show that they’re in a calmer state. Those who can look around will make eye contact with the reader [although their vision may still be unfocused] while others will try to look at the book.”
To help her get the program off the ground, Rubinos established a partnership with literacy-based organizations* in the community. The groups helped get over 1,000 books donated. In addition, “the Center for Literacy donated book shelves in the waiting area and the Rotary gave us a second grant to purchase parent education materials,” Rubinos said. The ICN staff set up a family library in the waiting area for “gently used” books – for both adults and older siblings, and a mobile book cart with beginner books that parents can read from. “Sometimes a sibling will choose a book from the cart and read to a baby brother or sister,” Rubinos said.
Parents enjoy reading the beginner books, but “what they read isn’t as important as how they read, the inflection,” she said, adding that the reading also counters the many equipment sounds that surround the babies.
At discharge, each family takes home a new book, with the baby’s name on it, and a tip sheet from the American Academy of Pediatrics on reading to infants. “We try to impress upon the families the importance of doing this simple act,” Rubinos said. “I’m passionate about it.”
(Top) Derek MacMath is one of several medical students who read to infants in the Babies & Books program.
(Bottom) Diamond Jones reads to daughter Mali.