Can Talking to a Baby Matter as Much as Calories?

Findings back up a long-standing reading program in the Stanford Children’s NICU

Reading in the NICU, at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford

A newly published study from a team of researchers and physician-scientists at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health adds to the growing body of literature linking speech exposure in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to positive health outcomes. The study set out to examine the relationship between the NICU speech environment and the rate of weight gain in premature infants while they were hospitalized.

At Stanford Children’s, neonatologists, including the paper’s co-author Melissa Scala, MD, are also faculty members at the Stanford School of Medicine and regularly conduct research to improve outcomes for newborn babies and to find ways to optimize the environment of the NICU in order to improve babies’ neurodevelopmental outcomes. “We know that appropriate weight gain is associated with better health outcomes,” says Dr. Scala. “It’s something that’s tracked daily in the NICU, and clinicians worry about babies whose weight falters. Anything we can do to help with weight gain, especially in preterm infants, is important to take into account.”

The surprising impact of hearing language

The researchers weren’t sure at all what they would find when looking at language exposure in terms of babies’ weight gain. “We were pleasantly surprised that language had a larger impact than we thought,” says Dr. Scala. In fact, the study found that the amount of calories a baby got and the level of speech exposure were actually equally impactful in terms of the baby’s physical growth.

Dr. Scala cautions that the findings from the study are associative, not causal. “For example, we don’t know if babies who are growing better are more alert and engaging and therefore are encouraging language exposure somehow,” she says. “Or it might be that language exposure alleviates stress, which could help babies grow. But the findings are intriguing.”

The study sets the stage for future research that could potentially establish causality. In the meantime, the authors concluded that enhancing speech exposure in the NICU may be beneficial for babies’ physical growth and that NICU care plans should consider opportunities to increase speech exposure.

Books by the bedside

It’s findings like this that inspired an annual tradition at the Stanford Children’s NICU, in which parents are given a book that they can keep at their baby’s bedside to read aloud. This year, on Dec. 7, 2023, families in the NICU will be given copies of Love You Forever (in two languages), along with information about the importance of talking to their babies.

Nurses within Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford in Palo Alto, CA

Nurses who help with the NICU’s reading program chose which book to give out this year—and it has special significance for Dr. Scala. When her own kids were little, she’d read it to them. “They found it funny because I couldn’t read it without tearing up,” she says. “It became a joke. They’d get big smiles on their faces, knowing I’d get teary.”

Encouraging reading aloud in the NICU is something that happens year-round at Stanford Children’s. “Nurses have just fallen in love with the book library and have taken up reading to babies themselves if families can’t be there,” says Dr. Scala. And nurses volunteer to pass out books on their breaks to loan to families. “Seeing the momentum around this is so gratifying,” Dr. Scala says.

Above all, Dr. Scala hopes that a takeaway from the study will be that parents feel empowered when their baby is in the NICU. “At a time when they feel helpless and scared, and their parental role is disrupted, there are things they can do that have significant impacts on their child’s health and development,” she says. “And reading to their baby is one of them.”

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