This post was written in honour of Family Literacy Day (January 27) by our Executive Director, Kate Robson.
When my first baby was born, at 25 weeks and weighing only 500 grams, there weren’t many “typical parent” things I could do for her. The incredible team taking care of her helped me hold her, but with all the tubes and machines she was connected to I couldn’t just scoop her up and cuddle her the way I had imagined. I didn’t give her the milk I made; it went down a tube instead. I couldn’t bathe her or dress her up. I couldn’t change her diapers, because she was so tiny there were no diapers that fit her. She just lay on top of one.
But I could read to her.
One of our nurses was the first person to suggest this to me. I was standing by her incubator, watching my daughter sleep, when this glorious person said, “I bet she’d like it if you read to her. We have tons of books in the Family Room.” The thought hadn’t crossed my mind yet, but as soon as I heard the suggestion I was all over it. I love books – always have. My first jobs were in libraries and bookstores. So I grabbed a book and began a tradition that night of reading her a story before “bed”. (In those days “bed” meant when I had to leave the hospital to go to bed myself.)
There is a lot of research that backs up that wise advice from our nurse; a study from McGill University shows that reading to preemies helps parents bond and also makes it more likely that they’ll read to their babies when at home. Preemies who are exposed to adult voices (especially parent voices) have higher cognition scores and do better with language. Parents don’t have to read children’s books; one mom read to her baby from People Magazine each night because she said she was tired of Dr. Seuss. There is something particularly beautiful, however, about hearing the lovely repetitive words of childhood favourites being read to very tiny people by very loving parents, and knowing what an important tradition they’re starting.
Ten years have gone by, and I still read my great big fifth grader a story every night. We have left behind “Goodnight Moon” (although I still remember every word) and have worked our way through Harry Potter, Narnia, the Little House Series, and other favourites. It is one habit from the NICU that we have kept, when most of the others have been thrown out the window. She is a voracious reader, and one of the joys of my life is watching her become immersed in a book.
Now I work in an NICU, with the same wonderful people who saved my baby, and we give storybooks to our new families and encourage them to read to their new arrivals. If you’d like to support your local NICU, ask them if you could donate new storybooks to their NICU families. If you are a new NICU parent (and if you are, congratulations!), celebrate Family Literacy Day by introducing your baby to your favourite stories. You are giving a gift that will last a lifetime.
Do you have a favourite story to read to your child? We’d love to hear about it. Please share in our comments section.