By Erica Rzepecki
Talking and singing to your baby – whether they were born premature or full-term – is incredibly important for their language development as they get older. Karen Netzel, coordinator of NICU Veteran Parents at the Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg (HSC), Manitoba, says the problem many NICU parents have, especially if they’re in the hospital for a long time, is knowing what to say to their baby.
Karen speaks from her own experience as the mother of a child born at 25 weeks (who is now 22 years old!) who spent seven months in the hospital after his birth. Karen says they experienced “every complication known to premature babies” during her son’s stay, and the knowledge and expertise this experience gave her is what led her back to the NICU as the Coordinator of NICU Veteran Parents, to help families who are going through what she went through.
Karen is especially passionate about language. She says that language exposure (through being spoken or sung to) is crucial for premature babies’ language rates as they develop. This is especially true for those born at 29 weeks or earlier, because since the final stages of hearing development haven’t occurred for them yet, they need language exposure after birth to make up for this and ensure their languages rates remain strong.
For this reason, the veteran parents of the Health Sciences Centre NICU are enthusiastic promoters of reading – both in and out of the NICU. This gives babies the language exposure they need, and books give parents the words to say!
They began promoting reading by giving out gift bags to parents – beautiful, unique, hand-sewn and decorated bags – that contained the book Good Night Moon, a book of nursery rhymes, as well as information on why reading is important. However, since Karen and the other parents knew that one book wasn’t enough for a full NICU stay, they created a lending library cart of books. A parent volunteer wheels the cart around to parents once a week so they can pick out a new book and return their last one – although Karen says parents sometimes hold onto their favourites for a few weeks in a row.
Then, Karen and the veteran parents decided to develop a truly special program – Baby Readers Program. In this program, volunteers are specially trained in reading expressively for babies, then enter the NICU, storybooks in hand, and read to the babies. This helps all babies with their language, but also helps entertain parents who are with their baby doing kangaroo care or have simply spent a lot of time in the NICU without much social contact.
Does reading your favourite storybooks to NICU babies and their parents sound like a dream volunteer opportunity? Check out your local hospital’s website to see if they have any wonderful volunteer opportunities for you like Karen and the NICU Veteran Parents have created.
Nurtured in the NICU stories are created by the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation to highlight the wonderful work of doctors, nurses, and parent volunteers in Canada’s NICUs. For more information or if you would like to share an initiative happening in your NICU, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.