Reading, skin-to-skin bonding offer developmental benefits to NICU babies

Programs offered by the development department at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, including the December reading event and kangaroo care education in the spring, promote important benefits of reading and skin-to-skin bonding in furthering development of the hospital’s most fragile babies.

nicu event

Earlier this year the care team at Packard Children’s pioneered a new series of developmental care events to highlight the important benefits of parent bedside care for preterm infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Intermediate Care Nursery (ICN), and Special Care Nursery at Sequoia (SEQ). Babies making their grand entrance earlier than expected experience complications ranging from jaundice to bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Long term impacts of preterm birth on the growing brain may affect how children perform in school and ultimate job opportunities as adults.

For many NICU infants, the NICU stay may last months, particularly for babies born at the earliest gestational ages. For these babies, the NICU becomes a very important early home. This time away from mother during a critical period of neurodevelopment in utero, means NICU babies are potentially at a disadvantage relative to their peers.

“We know that infants can hear from 24-26 weeks gestation,” says Melissa Scala, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Medical Director NICU Development Care at Packard Children’s. “Recent research seems to indicate that language exposure is important for normal brain development in preterm infants. We know that a rich language environment is important for older children. This seems to be the case for the most preterm infants as well.”

A recent analysis of factors contributing to adult cognitive abilities found that a good parent-infant relationship was 10 times as powerful at improving outcomes than any other single analyzed factor. NICU babies require special care, and teaching parents how to best support their baby’s development is vital to optimize infant outcomes.

Twice per year, the NICU developmental care team holds special events to highlight the important ways parents can support their infant’s development. The programs spearheaded by the developmental department give patients and families access to the best quality care for premature infants, and is guided by cutting-edge research. Reading, singing, massage, and kangaroo care or skin-to-skin development care practices are all important ways that parents can support their babies staying in the NICU.


Dr. Scala (left) oversees the NICU reading event, Friday, Dec. 1, joined by Alex Lopez (right), father to preterm triplets and illustrator of the “Tiniest Tumbleweed.”

Recently a reading event held at the Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services, drew support from patients, family and care team members. Alex Lopez, father of preterm triplets that were cared for at Packard Children’s nearly 10 years ago, returned for the occasion. Inspired by the family’s experience, Lopez illustrated a new children’s picture book called the Tiniest Tumbleweed, which was honored with an Irwan award. Lopez credits Packard Children’s and frequent parent-infant reading with positive outcomes for his children.

“Ongoing research at Stanford is attempting to better understand the exact impact of parental language exposure in the NICU,” says Scala. “This event is not part of that research but reflects our belief that parental language exposure is likely important for normal brain development and that bedside reading can be important for parent infant bonding.”


Bedside nurses and other care providers, including the development team, are trained to understand when NICU babies are good candidates for bedside reading. Books are available for parents to borrow in the NICU, and parents sometimes bring books from home to leave at the bedside. Parent-infant interaction is encouraged during each parent visit, and for many babies this may include activities such as bedside reading.

The development team will continue to champion the best care practices, guiding families and providing them with the knowledge they need to influence the best possible outcomes for their tiny NICU babies.

Follow the Healthier, Happy Lives blog for updates regarding our kangaroo care event in the spring, and the latest research about the best developmental care practices for NICU infants and their families.


5 Responses to “Reading, skin-to-skin bonding offer developmental benefits to NICU babies”

  1. Irma Duke

    I”m a nicu staff nurse trying to develop a reading club for our nicu babies and their parents. What we see often is parents holding their babies skin to skin then getting on their cell phones which is really sad. We would like to encourage our parents to start reading to their babies while the babies are in the nicu as we’re hopeful the parents will continue good reading habits as they take their babies home.

    Any suggestions you can give me as I try to explain the reading club to the parents and staff would be appreciated.

    Irma Duke

  2. Breanne Reed


    I would like to start reading program at our local NICU or well baby nursery as my Senior Girl Scout Gold Project. I would appreciate any suggestions on how to start a small program that hopefully will encourage the development of a larger successful program like yours.

    Thank you!
    Breanne Reed

    • JulJenkins

      Hi Breanne. Thank you for reaching out to us. We’re so pleased to hear of the good things you’re doing with the Girl Scout Program. We’ve sent your inquiry along to our NICU group, and will touch base with you soon regarding their response.

      • JulJenkins

        Hi Breanne. We’d like to connect you with the nurse who runs our reading program. Her name is Jessica Matei, and her email address is Thanks again for reaching out to us, and the best of luck on your project.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)