The newborn period looks very different for preemie babies in the neonatal intensive care unit than for other babies. Some are so delicate, they can’t even be held, limiting parents’ chances for kisses, cuddles, and late-night lullabies and making it harder to bond.
But ask almost every parent of a NICU baby how they managed to build that special connection and they’ll tell you the same thing: reading.
That was the case for April Nelson, a NICU nurse at AdventHealth for Children, whose own NICU journey inspired her to create the Books for Babies program. Nelson recently donated more than 600 books — in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole — to the NICU at AdventHealth for Children in Orlando, Florida, United States.
"I myself was a NICU mom. I had a premature baby at 26 weeks. We spent 93 days in the hospital, and there were some days I could only touch my baby for 10 minutes,” Nelson said. “But when I was able to sit and read to him, I felt connected to him. He could hear my voice and he knew me.”
Research shows that reading to babies — even tiny babies in the NICU — not only helps with bonding but can also reduce infant stress levels, enhance brain development and vocabulary, build listening and memory skills, and even prevent drops in oxygen levels. It also increases the likelihood that parents will continue reading to their babies after they’re discharged, helping establish a lifelong love of reading.
“Reading is even more important here in the NICU. If they were still in mom’s tummy, they would be hearing mom’s voice and heartbeat 24/7, and even other people’s voices,” Abbie Shimer, a NICU nurse and chair of AdventHealth for Children’s developmental committee, explained to WESH-2 News. “So the most comforting thing for a baby to hear is their parent’s voice, and putting a book in a parent’s hand is a wonderful way for them to still give that loving care, comfort their baby, and bond with them.”
AdventHealth for Children’s NICU in Orlando was recently ranked as the best in Florida and No. 32 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, recognizing the highly skilled clinicians who care for thousands of premature infants every year, some of whom are born weighing only 1 pound (less than 0.5 kg).
Nelson said the Books for Babies program underscores the whole-person care patients can expect at AdventHealth for Children.
“We are some of the most highly trained individuals from across the country to care medically for your baby, but we also care for your baby on every other level, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” she said. “We are here to support families in any way that we can.”