It’s easy for parents to feel helpless in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) with so much attention and activity focused on their newborn. With that in mind, Melanie Dyszel, BSN, and her fellow nurses in the Chester County Hospital NICU wanted to empower parents by encouraging them to read more to their infants.

Reading to infants has been shown to enhance their brain development, language skills, and vocabulary, and build listening and memory skills, Dyszel said. Early childhood research has found that the quantity and quality of words spoken to children before age three — and especially over their first 18 months, when the most rapid period of brain growth in infants occurs — directly correlates to their academic advantage later in life and to long-term neurodevelopment.

So, in April 2018, the NICU launched Bonding with Books, a program to engage parents in reading to their babies during their time in the NICU. Dyszel and the other nurses distributed chapter books, donated by the hospital’s women’s auxiliary, to interested parents whose babies were expected to be in the NICU for at least seven days. (Chapter books and short-story collections are preferred over board books because they enable parents to read for sustained periods, Dyszel said.) Parents also received a brochure highlighting some of the benefits of reading and simply talking to their baby, which include helping to facilitate good clinical outcomes and a strong parental bond.

Within the program’s first five months, a hospital survey showed that 89 percent of eligible parents were reading to their infants, and almost all felt more involved in their infants’ care. “Often, the only thing they can do is talk to their infants,” Dyszel said. “It also gives them back a little control in what can be a disorienting experience.”

The reading program is one of a host of new initiatives taking root in the NICU since the recent completion of its renovation. “We’re focusing more on parent-centered care, involving the parents from the very beginning,” Dyszel says. “With adequate space now for bedside rounds, we’re really trying to encourage the parents to be a vital part of the team.”

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