The benefits of reading aloud to sick and premature babies
Updated: 13 February 2022
For parents with a baby in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), reading aloud is not something that comes immediately to mind when they think of the things they might be able to do for their baby.
This is not surprising. NICU parents say that the experience of having a baby who was born early and sometimes very unwell can be overwhelming.
As well as the shock of their baby’s early arrival and/or illness, mums and dads with a baby in the NICU have to come to grips with the special care needs of their child, the care-giving skills they need to learn and the details of their baby’s illness. They also have to get to know and communicate with their child’s different care-givers.
NICU parents are very much aware aware that the nurses and doctors are the “experts” and in control of so much of what happens to their little one and they can often feel helpless and at a loss to know what they can do for their baby. It can even feel as if the baby is not really theirs but “belongs” to the hospital.
Hospitals these days encourage parents to take over as much of their baby’s day-to-day care as they can but this can still leave parents spending long hours sitting by their little one’s bedside with not much to do and with few opportunities to really connect and bond with this precious baby.
So what to do?
If you’re a parent with a baby in the NICU, reading aloud can help you connect to – and bond with – your precious little one.
Reading to babies in the NICU: the research
Babies benefit in many ways from being read to and there is now good research to show that reading aloud to sick and premature babies brings extra special benefits, both for the babies themselves and for their parents.
In 2010, a study in Montreal in Canada compared two groups of parents of premature babies:
- parents who had been encouraged to read to their babies in the NICU;
- parents whose babies had been discharged from the NICU before the reading program was introduced;
They wanted to find out whether the reading program had made a difference to the parents’ experience while their babies were in the NICU or to the amount of reading the parents did with their babies once the babies were taken home.
In other words, they wanted to know about the immediate and short-term benefits of reading to a premature baby in the NICU and they were interested in whether there were any longer-term benefits which might show up, when the children involved in the study started school, for example.
And the results?
The study showed that encouraging parents to read to their sick and premature babies in the NICU:
- allowed parents to engage with their babies in a positive way;
- helped parents cope with the difficult experience of having a sick baby;
- meant that the parents were far more likely to continue reading aloud to their babies in the months after the babies were discharged;
Eight years later, a 2018 US study investigated the impact of parental bedside reading on the cardio-respiratory stability of pre-term infants in the NICU.
The study found that babies showed fewer desaturation events (decreased oxygen levels) less than 85% while their parents were reading to them than they did prior to being read to. This effect persisted for up to an hour after the end of the reading session. It was also noted that the babies experienced fewer desaturation events when the reading was being done by their mothers.
That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
What the NICU parents said about their reading aloud experiences
So what did the parents who took part in the 2010 Canadian study say about the experience of reading to their babies?
I really loved reading the comments these parents made about how reading aloud helped them while their babies were in the NICU.
The parents felt that reading to their babies provided them with a sense of control, a sense of intimacy and a sense of normalcy in the middle of what was very obviously not a ‘normal’ situation.
Here are some of their comments:
“I would never have thought to read to such a young baby. I didn’t know what to say (when I first saw him) … The nurse told me I could read to him if I wanted to and gave me a book. I started to read, and then the words came.”
“The NICU is so crowded, and a hard place to be. Reading to my baby was a minute of intimacy that I really needed.”
“I found it hard to talk to him, especially since he was so sick and did not respond. Reading was a way to feel close to him.”
“In the beginning, when she was in the incubator, it helped to be able to read to her. When we didn’t know anything we could do for her, it was nice to do a normal thing.”
“In the hospital, I found it really useful to have a book to read to him. It gave us something normal to do. It humanised a very difficult situation.”
Which books should I read to my baby in the NICU?
Having said that, babies especially enjoy rhyming stories and poems and books which have a lovely rhythm when you read them aloud. Watch your baby’s response and you’ll soon get to know which books he or she seems to respond to most.
Remember too that the books you read to your baby in NICU will hold a special place in your baby’s memory and heart for years to come so choose books you enjoy reading and books you will read aloud when you’re home together. Your baby will learn to associate these books with feelings of comfort and of being loved and you’ll be able to read them at home whenever he is upset or unsettled and needs to feel those feelings.
Children’s poetry books are brilliant to read aloud. They usually contain a selection of short and longer poems so you can get used to reading aloud (and to hearing yourself read aloud) in short bursts. This can be good if you feel awkward at first about reading aloud (we all do!)
6 books to read aloud to your baby in the NICU
Would you like to buy some books to read to your baby in the NICU? Or perhaps you’d like to buy a couple of books as a gift for a friend or relative who has a child in the NICU.
If so, here – in no particular order – are my suggestions. All make wonderful gifts, are beautiful books to read aloud and are a great place to start if you’d like to create a library of special books for a baby who is close to you.
The cover images will take you to the Book Depository website which is where I buy many of my books.
I’m Felicity. I write about children’s books and reading and about their potential for enriching the lives of young humans.
I review picture books, board books and sometimes books for older children.
As well as being a lover of all things to do with books and reading, I’m a mum of three young adults and a primary school teacher. I also create gift baskets filled with the very best books for children from newborns to four-year-olds.
Welcome. It’s nice to meet you.
Over to you
Is there anything I’ve missed?
Did your baby spend time in the NICU? Were you encouraged to read to your little one while you spent time together in the NICU?
I’d love to hear what you think so drop me a line in the comments.
Erdei, C. (n.d.). Reading to Preterm Babies May Have Long Term Benefits. Retrieved 10 September 2019: https://brighamhealthhub.org/innovation/the-benefits-of-reading-begin-at-birth
Ford, S. (2016). Trust encouraged parents to read to premature babies. Retrieved 10 September 2019: https://www.nursingtimes.net/news/research-and-innovation/trust-encouraged-parents-to-read-to-premature-babies-24-11-2016/
Gold Coast Health. (2019). GCUH study has NICU babies listening to mums reading classic children’s book. Retrieved 13 February 2022: https://www.goldcoast.health.qld.gov.au/about-us/news/gcuh-study-has-nicu-babies-listening-mums-reading-classic-childrens-book
Jenkins, J. (2017). Reading, skin-to-skin bonding offer developmental benefits to NICU babies. Retrieved 10 September 2019: https://healthier.stanfordchildrens.org/en/reading-skin-to-skin-bonding-benefits-nicu-babies/
Puskas, B. (2016). Reading to Your Preemie: One of the Greatest Gifts You Can Give. Retrieved 10 September: https://handtohold.org/reading-to-your-preemie/
Rochman, B. (2011). Reading to Newborns in the NICU Boosts Bonding. Retrieved 10 September 2019: https://healthland.time.com/2011/01/10/reading-to-newborns-in-the-nicu-boosts-bonding/
Scala, M; Seo, S; Lee-Park, J; McClure, C; Scala, M; Palafoutas, J; & Abubakar, K. (2018). Effect of reading to preterm infants on measures of cardiorespiratory stability in the neonatal intensive care unit. Retrieved 21 July 2021: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30120423/