For a baby in the NICU, parent’s voice is the best medicine

Children's Health

by Grace Glausier

Dec 21, 2017

The day your child is born should be the happiest day of your life. But for some new parents, it quickly becomes a nightmare when they find themselves in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). With its tight security, beeping monitors and lines of incubators, the NICU can be an intimidating place, and it’s one no parent ever wants to be.

Physically separated by the glass walls of an incubator, it’s easy for parents to feel disconnected from their babies as they make daily trips to the hospital and hope for the day when they can finally bring them home.

But at Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health, there’s a new way for parents to connect with their babies in the NICU — and boost their growth — by reading to them.

The idea behind the new pilot program is to harness the power of a parent’s voice to help a baby’s brain development. Many babies born prematurely face developmental or learning delays, partially due to a lack of exposure to the auditory experiences they need to develop critical parts of the brain. The reading program hopes to give these preemies a boost using the power of their parents’ voices.

In a normal, full-term pregnancy, these babies would still be in their mother’s womb, hearing their parents’ voices constantly. Reading aloud helps simulate that kind of environment, giving them the comfort and noise stimulation they would have if they were still in the womb. Studies show that these auditory experiences are crucial for future language development and learning skills.

Helping families bond

For new mother Bora Day, it’s been a long journey just to get to the NICU. Her twin boys, Ethan and Ian, were born several months early in an emergency C-section after a complicated pregnancy that was full of ups and downs.

At 15 weeks, the twins were diagnosed with twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), meaning one baby was getting 80 percent of the nutrition. Without a risky laser surgery, neither twin would survive. But as Bora said, her boys are “fighters,” and they overcame every obstacle along the way.

“At first, I was very, very emotional,” she said. “But after seeing the NICU team, I’m just thankful that they’re here and that they made it this far. We went through a lot.”

She said reading aloud helps her bond with Ethan and Ian, even though they are separated by the glass that protects their fragile bodies from the outside world.

“Since they can’t go home with me, all I could do was just look at them from outside this incubator,” she said. “But now I can connect more with them. Even though I can’t hold him and I can’t have him with me all the time, it gives me an opportunity to touch him and give him the love that I can give.”

The power of a parent’s voice

Reading aloud is a sweet way for parents and babies to bond, but this program has a greater purpose — it’s a pilot program to gather evidence-based data on the effects of reading aloud to a baby in intensive care.

For babies at this early stage of life, everything has extra significance.

“From 25 weeks to term, there is rapid growth of the brain,” said Rowena Cadungog, BSN, RNC-NIC, a nurse on staff at the Baylor University Medical Center NICU. “At the bedside, we can make a big difference by protecting them from stress. We encourage parents to do skin-to-skin, to interact with their babies, talk with their babies, change diapers and now read to their babies because those are all forms of parental bonding — and babies need that. It increases their tolerance to stress when they know that their parents are there.”

Rowena and Victoria Coats, neonatal therapist on staff at Baylor University Medical Center, teamed up to develop this pilot program based on a model started at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Rowena and Victoria, both mothers of babies who spent time in the NICU, know firsthand how difficult it can be.

“This isn’t like your typical newborn,” Victoria said. “This is a different situation, so parents don’t really know their role and how they can care for their baby. This gives them an avenue to do that and helps them connect — not only now, but there are also positive long-term effects from this program.”

Sometimes, just hearing their parents’ voices can actually improve a baby’s health in real time.

“Sometimes the oxygen saturation will actually increase,” Victoria explained, “showing that they’re more autonomically stable when they’re hearing their parent’s voice and feeling that touch in the moment.”

For mothers and fathers waiting to take their child home, this reading program offers a way to help their baby grow and make their time in the NICU meaningful instead of stressful. Because there really is nothing more powerful than the love of a parent.

Find out more about neonatal care and pregnancy and birth at Baylor Scott & White Health.

About the Author

Grace Glausier is the manager of digital content strategy for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.

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