Suzy Guess, RN, MSN, is an avid reader who passed her love of books along to her family. “I had three children of my own, and we read a lot of Dr. Seuss in those early years,” says Guess, director of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.
“Those were always special times, when we slowed down and really paid attention to each other.”
In the fall of 2017, Guess started a book cart program in the Magee NICU after receiving a large donation of books from a local company. Each NICU baby gets a free book, and parents are encouraged to spend time reading to their premature infants in the hospital. “We already had books available for siblings visiting the NICU,” she says. “But last summer the idea started formulating — wouldn’t it be great to encourage this wonderful bonding time for the preemies as well?”
The Simple Act of Reading
NICU staff members walk around with the book cart, and parents can select what they like — often an old favorite from their own childhood. It adds a bit of normalcy to what can be a very stressful situation.
“No family dreams about ending up in the NICU,” Guess says. “You don’t plan to have a premature baby. A lot of times the parents haven’t packed, they haven’t even showered.”
Life in the NICU can be a jarring experience at the best of times, she adds, with bright lights, buzzers, and alarms. And when babies are medically fragile, new parents may not even be able to hold them right away. “Moms and dads feel helpless, like there’s not much they can do,” Guess says. “The simple act of reading a book is comforting to them and the baby.”
Bonding Through Books
Research shows that reading out loud improves a baby’s language and cognitive skills, but reading to preemies has even more benefits, Guess says. “They’re soothed by the parent’s presence and familiar voice, which they’ve heard for months in utero. Sitting still and reading can reduce stress for frazzled parents, too.”
The act of reading also gives parents a small sense of control. “It’s one positive thing they can do for their baby, even if they have to speak through the little porthole in the incubator,” says Guess. “It really warms my heart to see them reading to their babies.”
One mom recently had a very sick baby, and couldn’t even hold her child due to medical issues. “She was so grateful when we offered her a book,” Guess says. “It was something she could actively do for her child — it made her feel like a mom.”
How to Help
With an average of 130 NICU admissions per month, there’s a high demand for donated books at Magee. The type of book doesn’t matter — anything from Green Eggs and Ham to Harry Potter is welcome. The benefits will outlast the infants’ time in the NICU, says Guess.
“If parents start reading to babies here in the hospital, it’s more likely they’ll keep reading to them as they grow.”
To reduce the risk of infection, the staff asks for donations of new books only. Please send book donations to UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, ATTN: NICU, 300 Halket St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213. You can also leave new books at the hospital’s front desk.