Storytime at NICU

Storytime in the NICU

For most new parents, December is a time to shower their babies with holiday gifts. And families whose babies are in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford will get the same chance, except that their gift really is the kind that keeps on giving: Parents will get a firsthand glimpse of the latest research into how reading to their newborns in the NICU can impact their health.

Melissa Scala, MD, clinical associate professor of pediatrics and medical director of NICU Development Care, and Katherine Travis, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and developmental cognitive neuroscientist at Packard Children’s, share a passion for research into how babies’ brains develop, which can be greatly impacted during a NICU stay. It’s not unusual for very premature babies to spend months in the NICU. During this time, the team at Packard Children’s works to put the latest research into practice to prime these tiny babies’ brains to develop as they should.

Scala and Travis support the hospital’s efforts to educate parents on how to best support the growth and development of their babies, guided by cutting-edge research like theirs. For example, most parents don’t know that a rich language environment stands out as an important element in the normal brain development of young infants, even if born very early.

Small trials done by Scala and others have shown that preterm babies are already affected by the language they hear. Listening to live speech or recordings of parents’ voices is beneficial to NICU babies’ short-term health outcomes. Babies listening to their parents’ voices have more stable breathing and heart rates and have better feeding and growth.

Parents Reading to Infant in NICU

What isn’t yet known is whether an early, language-filled NICU environment could benefit babies’ overall brain development and, specifically, their language development. Because this field of research is so new, the two doctors have set out to get a baseline understanding of what babies generally hear in the NICU. Using a tiny device much like a fitness tracker, which measures speech in an infant’s environment, they’ve begun to quantify where the richest sources of language exposure may be in the NICU. What they’re seeing thus far is “enormous variability” in the amount of speech that babies may be exposed to while in the NICU. Some babies may hear many thousands of words, while some are exposed to very few. Since parents talking or reading can be a powerful source of language, doctors Scala and Travis are optimistic that encouraging parents to engage in these activities may be an important opportunity for parents to have a sizable impact on their infants’ overall language exposure.

The doctors are convinced that the more these infants hear their parents speaking, the better the effect on their development. “We hypothesize that it’s very important for brain development for these babies,” says Scala.

One way they’re hoping to find out is by examining how hearing a parent’s voice correlates to brain imaging scans—Travis’s area of expertise. At the Packard Children’s NICU, all babies born atless than 32 weeks receive an MRI, creating a rich data source for her to analyze. “It’s preliminary but highly promising,” says Travis. “I think wewill see associations between hearing voices and changes in brain connectivity. Demonstrating these relationships would support our hypothesis that parents talking is likely to be an important factor for healthy brain and language development in infants born preterm.” 

Insights like this are what drove the inception of the NICU reading event at Packard Children’s, held on Dec. 13 this year. It’s the third time that the team has hosted an event for families to highlight the benefits of parents’ interaction at the bedside with their babies. This year, families in the NICU at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health will be given the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom in English and Spanish, along with information about the importance of reading and language exposure.

Benefits of reading to Infants

“For some families, this is a way they can really engage with their kids, and it’s sort of beautiful to see parents doing it during this event,” says Scala. “It’s important to remember that the work we’re doing is truly meant to foster a normal parent-infant interaction and solidify a bond that is core to the care we provide to families in our NICU.”


2 Responses to “Storytime at NICU”

  1. Judy Wheeler

    Hello. I am very excited to hear of your research. I was doing some reading about how sound machines are possible overused and can be associated with delayed speech development. I recently started a mini library in our special care nursery for our parents to read to their babies and encourage the turning off of the sound machines especially during feeds. I would love to read any references that you can suggest. Thank you, Judy Wheeler RN


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