By Heather Barrow
My son, born at 32 weeks gestation, was in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for two weeks after a two-month stay on bed rest for me in the hospital. With the craziness and lack of privacy in the NICU, it never once occurred to me to read to him. Nurses taught me how to handle the tubes, monitors, equipment and how to hold and feed him so I wouldn’t ‘stress’ him out. Not one person told me it would also help to read, sing and talk to him. Our family had the support and resources to have someone reading to Hill every minute the doctors would have allowed, but I simply didn’t know it was that important. I focused on getting him out of the NICU not knowing that reading to Hill in the NICU would help him then and for years to come. Now, almost six years later I know the extreme benefits of reading to preemies in the NICU, and am determined to raise awareness about why it is so important for the baby and our community. 14% of babies in the state of Florida are born prematurely every year, so the chances that you will be impacted by prematurity in some way are close to 100%. Here are five people who should care if preemies are read to in the NICU:
1. NICU Parents – You have the power to make this happen for your baby. There aren’t many things you can control in the NICU, but reading to your baby is one of them. In the NICU, people are quieter. Nurses and physicians may not interact verbally with the babies and visiting hours may be limited. While the importance of talking to preemies is clear, it can be awkward for parents to talk to their baby (often in an enclosed isolette) in the NICU for extended periods of time. Reading a book out loud solves this problem! Assemble a team of your most trusted (and healthy) family and friends and develop a schedule where they can come and read to your baby. Not only does it help them become an active part of your baby’s care, but also it gives you a much-needed rest while knowing your baby is in great hands. Be sure to establish rules with the group (no holding, touching, etc.) so you can save those precious and regulated moments for when you are there.
2. Employers – You may remember AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s media backlash in 2014 for shamelessly blaming the significant cost of care of two employee’s “distressed babies” as the company’s justification for making unfavorable changes to employee benefits. The average hospital bill for a premature baby is more than $50,000, with some bills stretching into the millions. For babies covered under employer health care plans, this consistently negatively impacts the bottom line for the companies, and future benefits and premiums for other employees. A 2014 Vanderbilt University study showed that premature babies who received an interventional therapy combining their mother’s voice and a pacifier-activated music player learn to eat more efficiently and have their feeding tubes removed sooner than other preemies, which correlated to shorter NICU stays for the babies. Shorter NICU stays correlate to lower hospital bills. Reading to babies in the NICU is a win-win for babies and their parents’ employers.
3. Taxpayers – More than 50% of NICU stays are funded by Medicaid, so the same methodology in 2 above applies to taxpayers. Additionally, it is well documented that premature babies face a number of challenges, including a high risk of speech and language delay. A 2014 Brown University study found that exposing preemies to more adult language in the NICU increased their speech and language abilities at 7 and 18 months (adjusted age), which are the building blocks for future reading and success in school. Many federal and state government programs, including Part C of IDEA, Early Steps and Child Find, provide much needed funding for children with significant developmental delays and disabilities. We can decrease the likelihood some babies will need these programs in the future by consistently reading to all babies in the NICU (and after discharge), which is the best case scenario for everyone, especially the child.
4. Schools and teachers – Although many schools may not make the connection, with 14% of babies born prematurely in Florida, current preemies are their future students. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Why are we not making the correlation that our state’s premature birth epidemic is translating into toddlers with speech and language delays, who grow into elementary students with reading delays and decreased success in school? We must pour the time and energy into our babies at most risk for these delays while they are still in the NICU. Our classrooms, fellow students and community will reap the benefits of the literary seeds we sow while these babies are still in the hospital.
5. You – 99% of you should fit into one of the categories above, but if you don’t, why should you care? Your child (or nephew, or friend) will one day share a classroom with a NICU grad. It benefits everyone for every child to enter into the classroom with the basic tools needed for success. To ensure that child succeeds, but not at your child’s expense.
High Risk Hope’s new Books For Babies program is in its infancy and each book received from our inaugural book drive will make a lifelong impact for a premature baby in our community. We have had several donations already, including a dollar for dollar match for donations made before January 31st. We have big plans for this program and our HRH babies; I hope your family will join mine in support, because it takes a village to raise a premature baby.