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NICU preemies tackle their fall reading list

Toronto, September 8, 2017

By Emily Holton

NICU mom Arlene reads “Love You Forever” to her son
NICU mom Arlene reads “Love You Forever” to her son, Logan. The NICU Books for Babies Program launched Sept. 8. (Photo by Katie Cooper)

While most babies their age are still in utero, St. Michael’s preemies are hitting the books.

Starting this month, every family that stays for more than four days in the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit will receive a small collection of free children’s books.

“Research has shown that reading with children should start at birth,” said Amanda Hignell, a social worker in the NICU. “The sounds and intonations of reading aloud can foster brain development in newborns, and it gets parents role-modeling reading right from the start.”

Some NICU babies are too little or sick to be held, and parents must get to know their babies through an incubator wall.

“Reading aloud can help parents and babies connect and bond, even when there’s that physical separation,” said Hignell.

The Books for Babies Program was launched in memory of Maryrose O’Neill, an NICU baby cuddler who loved books and reading with children. St. Michael’s baby cuddlers are carefully selected volunteers who hold and comfort infants when their parents can’t be present in the NICU.

Tips for reading with babies
From the American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Cuddle up and read with emotion. Although they may not understand the words or story in a book, babies will respond to the emotion in your voice and expression on your face.

  • Choose colourful and sturdy books. As babies get older, they’ll reach out to hold the book and explore it with their mouths.

  • Plan a special reading time. Turn off the TV, put away your phone and make this time special by giving baby your full attention.

  • Read together every day. Reading aloud together at the same time every day can create a helpful routine, especially when it’s part of your calming bedtime ritual.

  • Keep reading together, even when your child can read. Children are never too young or too old to enjoy reading with you.

O’Neill’s daughter, Cathy O’Neill, director of Quality and Performance, raised the funds for the program with her family. Hignell and O’Neill also secured more than 150 donated children’s books from several publishers. They said they hoped the program would grow to include an onsite library for NICU families and volunteers.

“Books were my mom’s world, and being a NICU cuddler was her favourite thing to do,” said O’Neill. “This program feels like the perfect way to help NICU families as well as honour my mother’s passions and creative imagination. She always knew how to connect with babies and children, and reading was a big part of that.”

The books are packaged for families with a quote from Winnie the Pooh: “Always remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”

To support the Books for Babies Program, go to Donations of new children’s books are also welcome; contact Amanda Hignell to arrange a drop-off.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 29 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

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