Written by Jennifer Canvasser, founder and executive director of the NEC Society
When my twins were born three months prematurely, I struggled with intense feelings of maternal guilt and incompetence. Throughout their time in the NICU, my twins were often medically unstable, meaning I could not bond with my babies in any of the normal ways. There were months when I could not even hold them. When many of my responsibilities as a mother had been handed over to professionals, I could still bond with my babies through reading. I read to them before they were taken to the operating room. I read to them every night before I reluctantly went home to sleep. I read to my firstborn son Micah as he died from complications of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).
Research has proven what we instinctively know: reading offers neuroprotective benefits to babies. When families read to their babies, they are nurturing their child’s long-term cognitive, language, and social-emotional development. Parents are engaged and physically close as they read to their babies, providing comfort to their children. Reading brings parents and babies together, and closeness is essential for NICU families. Moreover, NICU parents who are engaged may feel better equipped to participate as active members of their baby’s care team.
The benefits of books are not just for the babies; reading together offers impactful benefits for NICU parents. Reading can provide parents with a sense of normalcy when their life and hopes have been turned upside down. Reading also allows NICU families to build memories together. This is especially true when the books are meaningful, either because the storyline resonates with their current experience, or because the book is familiar to the parents, perhaps even a story they read as a child.
After Micah died from NEC, I was desperate for ways to keep him in my life. Reflecting back on what brought Micah and his twin comfort during their time in the NICU, I knew reading together was crucial to our wellbeing. My family wanted other NICU parents to experience that same connection with their baby through reading. Thanks to an incredible community, we started a giving library at our NICU and donated thousands of books so that each NICU family could receive a new book that was theirs to keep each week during their baby’s hospitalization.
The leading NICUs ensure mothers have access to breast pumps and preemies have access to human milk; they should also ensure families have access to storybooks. Reading together can be an impactful and cost-efficient strategy to help foster neuroprotective infant care, promote parent-baby bonding, and improve the wellbeing of NICU families who are overwhelmed and desperate for ways to nurture their child. Storybooks should be valued as an essential intervention in the NICU not only for the immediate benefits it offers to infants and parents but also because it has the potential to build lifelong readers. By normalizing and encouraging reading in the NICU, we can help to establish the habit of families reading together every day.
Having an infant in the NICU is often a life-changing experience and books can help families cope with the trauma. Reading with our twins helped our family cope with difficult diagnoses and the everyday anxiety of being in the NICU. During our last hours with Micah as he was dying, we stamped his handprints into his favorite books. Today, we read those same stories to Micah’s siblings and they love seeing their hands next to their brother’s handprints.
To help NICUs get started, below are some favorite titles. NICUs can launch a giving library by partnering with their hospital’s child life program, teaming up with their center’s family advisory council, or even working with a local bookstore. Storybooks are a gift that givers love to give. NICUs can encourage their community of supporters to donate new books so their center’s babies and families can be nurtured through reading.
10 favorite books to read in the NICU
- Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You, by Nancy Tillman
- You Are My I Love You, by Maryann K. Cusimano
- The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper
- Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
- All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon
- On the Night You Were Born, by Nancy Tillman
- The I Love You Book, by Todd Parr
- You Are My Sunshine (nursery rhyme, various authors)
- The Crown On Your Head, by Nancy Tillman
- Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (nursery rhyme, various authors)