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2021 Jun

Building Brains with Books

Early language exposure helps CHKD’s littlest babies.

Reading aloud is good for the brain and the heart, and even the tiniest babies in CHKD’s neonatal intensive care unit can absorb those benefits as CHKD becomes the first NICU in the state to launch a Reach Out and Read site.

Reach Out and Read is a national program in which doctors and nurse practitioners give a “prescription to read” to patients and their caregivers, in the form of age-appropriate books. CHKD Medical Group practices have been giving them to children 6 months to 5 years of age at their well-child visits for more than 20 years.

Now CHKD’s youngest patients are joining the reading circle. Several years ago, the Reach Out and Read program gave sites the option to expand to children younger than 6 months, a nod to studies showing neurological benefits of the spoken word. CHKD joins a dozen NICUs across the country in the program that encourages parents and caregivers to read, talk, and sing to their newborns.

Besides promoting brain and language development, reading aloud allows families to bond with their babies, which is especially important when they begin life in a NICU. Our CHKD staff and “volunteer cuddlers” also are encouraged to read to the infants when the parents aren’t there to give babies meaningful auditory exposure.

“Early language exposure is so important for speech and cognitive development, especially for infants born preterm,” said Dr. Rebecca Dorner, a neonatologist and medical consultant for the Reach Out and Read program at CHKD.  “Reading is the perfect way to bring that language to the bedside.”

During the past six months, CHKD’s neonatologists, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, child life specialists, and case managers have gone through Reach Out and Read training, which led the national organization to declare the NICU an official site in March.

Babies get a new book, “Welcome Little One,” at admission, and additional books each month they spend in the NICU. They are sent off with “If I Could Keep You Little” when they are discharged. Healthcare providers also discuss with parents and family members the brain-building power of shared reading and offer guidance in making reading a part of daily life to promote social, emotional, and neurological health.

Charlie McCarthy of Chesapeake is one of the early recipients of the board books, which are available in English and Spanish. He came to the NICU in February when he was just four days old, after being born two months early. His parents started reading to him when he just a few days old.

Luke Jimerson, who was also born in February, also has his own set of books in his NICU room. His mother, Sonya Jimerson of Virginia Beach, said his 3-year-old sister has always been read to as well, so it’s a family affair.

The early literacy effort is just one aspect in the neonatal neurology treatment that CHKD has spent decades developing. From leading-edge treatment to brain-focused research, neonatologists and neurologists work together using a multidisciplinary approach to protect, heal, and develop the newborn brain.

Considering that CHKD pediatricians also prescribe books, to the tune of 82,000 books a year, CHKD patients throughout Hampton Roads should have sizeable home libraries by the time they begin school.

“Since research in brain development has shown reading aloud helps to build connections between written and spoken words, increases attention span, and enforces bonding, it is never too early to begin that process,” said LaVern Morris, administrator of the overall Reach Out and Read Program at CHKD. “That makes the neonatal environment the perfect place to start children on a journey of success and prepare them to enter school ready to learn.”

CHKD is the only freestanding children’s hospital in Virginia and serves the medical and surgical needs of children throughout greater Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and northeastern North Carolina. Learn more at CHKD.org.

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