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Reading to Preterm Babies May Have Long Term Benefits

During a newborn’s time in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU), critical brain development is occurring, including the development of the pathways that control language skills. By reading to their babies, parents are not only bonding with them and reducing some of the stress of being in the NICU, but they’re also aiding in their children’s brain development.

“More than half of babies born at very low birth weight have language delays during childhood,” says Carmina Erdei, MD, a neonatologist in the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). “This is not a coincidence, and there is something we can do about it.”

Terrie Inder, MD, MBChB, Chair of the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine, and Dr. Erdei say that infants need frequent exposure to meaningful auditory experiences to ensure optimal early brain development. Studies show that preterm infants who are not exposed to language while in the NICU have lower language performance at age two. In an effort to prevent language delays, the BWH NICU is committed to promoting reading through a new effort called the Brigham Baby Academy.

“It’s our goal to ensure that each infant is read to at least once a day by their parents or an extended member of their family,” says Dr. Erdei.

Research points to the vast benefits of reading from birth onward. In addition to advancing brain development, language skills, and vocabulary, it also can build listening and memory skills. Through a snowball effect, Dr. Erdei explains, early language exposure increases reading proficiency by third grade, which is a strong predictor of high school graduation and career success.

In an effort to help prevent language delays, the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine has established the Brigham Baby Academy, a new program that ensures all NICU babies are read to by a parent or nurse at least once a day.

“The Brigham NICU gave us a book as part of our welcome packet, which was an important gesture in letting parents know just how important reading is,” says parent Maegan Jerr. “For us, it’s a family tradition we hope to continue for many years to come.”

 – Katie H.