Reading to Premature Babies

Parents whose premature babies need to be admitted to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) usually find the experience overwhelming.

As well as the shock of their baby's early arrival, they also have to come to grips with the special care needs of their baby, the care-giving skills they need to learn, the details of their baby's illness and the need to get to know and communicate with their child's different care-givers.

Apart from their concerns about their babies' health, parents of premature babies often say that they feel:

  • helpless and at a loss to know what they can do for their little ones;
  • that the baby is not really theirs but seems to "belong" to the hospital;

These feelings are completely understandable. After all, the nurses and doctors who care for premature babies are clearly the "experts" and are in control of so much of what happens to the baby.

Partly in an attempt to overcome this, most hospitals now encourage parents to take over as much of their baby's day-to-day care as they can. 

This is obviously a good thing however it may still leave a parent - often the mother - spending long hours by the baby's bedside with little to do and with few opportunities to really connect and bond with their baby.

This is where reading aloud can help.

Reading to Babies

If you've had a look around this site, you'll have already read about the importance of reading and how and why we should start reading to our children as early as possible in their lives.

If not, here's what you need to know in a nutshell.

Reading to babies and young children is important because it:

  • promotes bonding and a close relationship between parent and child;
  • saturates the child's brain with language, especially language that is different from everyday speech;

These benefits hold true for all babies, including very sick and premature babies who have to spend time in the NICU (sometimes also called the Special Care Baby Unit or SCBU).

In fact, there is now good research to show that reading aloud to sick and premature babies brings special benefits, both for the babies themselves and for their parents.

Reading to Premature Babies: the Reseach

In 2010, a study in Montreal in Canada compared two groups of parents of premature babies:

  • parents who had been encouraged to read to their babies in the NICU;
  • parents whose babies had been discharged from the NICU before the reading program was introduced;

They wanted to find out whether the reading program had made any difference to the parents' experience while their babies were in the NICU or to the amount of reading the parents did with their babies once the babies were taken home. 

The study showed that encouraging parents to read to their sick and premature babies in the NICU:

  • allowed parents to engage with their babies in a positive way;
  • helped parents cope with the difficult experience of having a sick baby;
  • meant that they were far more likely to continue reading aloud to their babies in the months after the babies were discharged;

What the Parents Said

I really loved reading the comments the parents made about how reading aloud to their sick or premature babies helped them while their babies were in the NICU.

The parents felt that reading to their babies provided them with a sense of control, a sense of intimacy and a sense of normalcy.

Here are some of the comments:

"When I read to her, I had the impression I was really with her. She was in the middle of the room, on a HIFI ventilator, with lots of action around her, and I couldn't hold her, but I think I really calmed her when I read."


"I would never have thought to read to such a young baby. I didn't know what to say (when I first saw him) ... The nurse told me I could read to him if I wanted to and gave me a book. I started to read, and then the words came."


"The NICU is so crowded, and a hard place to be. Reading to my baby was a minute of intimacy that I really needed."


"I found it hard to talk to him, especially since he was so sick and did not respond. Reading was a way to feel close to him."


"In the beginning, when she was in the incubator, it helped to be able to read to her. When we didn't know anything we could do for her, it was nice to do a normal thing."


"In the hospital, I found it really useful to have a book to read to him. It gave us something normal to do. It humanized a very difficult situation."


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