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Reading Books to Babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

02/27/2017 12:56PM ● By Kerri Regan

Guess How Much I Love You

March 2017
By Kerri Regan
Photo courtesy of Nick Webb

During the third trimester of pregnancy, most babies are soothed by the “swoosh, swoosh, swoosh” of Mom’s heartbeat and the muffled sounds of conversation in the world that awaits them. 

But when babies skip that third trimester and make their debut early, those in utero sounds are replaced by the beeps and alarms of machines that keep fragile babies alive. And as is the case with most families whose babies wind up in the neonatal intensive care unit, it’s certainly not the way that Redding’s Abby and Nick Webb anticipated that their twin sons would begin their lives.

Alarmed by what she suspected was (very) early labor, Abby went straight from her December baby shower to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, and 26 hours later, the boys were born - three full months before their March 11 due date, at just 27 weeks gestation. “We had no hospital bag, no birth plan,” Abby says. “We thought we had a couple more months.” Julian Reid weighed in at 2 lbs., 5.5 oz., and Elliot Cadel was 2 lbs., 4 oz. 

As the Webbs hunkered down for a lengthy stay in the NICU, news of the boys’ early arrival prompted their friend, former First 5 Shasta Executive Director Joy Garcia, to share some advice. Garcia had recently attended a training that explained how premature babies who had heard more spoken language in the NICU did better on cognitive and developmental assessments later in childhood. 

“The sounds they hear in the NICU are artificial and different - it’s not what they’d be hearing if they were still inside their mothers,” explains Abby, a special education teacher. 

But chit-chatting with babies who are covered in wires and tubes, surrounded by ominous machinery and medical personnel, can feel awkward and uncomfortable. “For me, it was intimidating,” says Nick, the residence life director at Shasta College. “But if you have a book, you read a script. It tells you what to say. And it might get you in the habit of reading to them every day.” 

  As it turns out, the Webbs have a knack for making big things happen – they’re the kind of folks who can convince novice bicyclists to ride 100 miles for a worthy cause. So once they realized the benefit of reading to NICU babies, they decided to figure out a way to make this easier for other families, too.  

  Nick tapped into a benefit offered by Thrivent Financial, a not-for-profit financial services organization that allows members to apply for small grants to benefit philanthropic projects. The Webbs requested funding to purchase books and a bookshelf for NICU families, and then shared their idea with friends and family, creating a wish list of 25 board books on Amazon. Every book was bought within hours. So they added more, and people bought more. “People we don’t even know are donating books,” Abby says.

The logistics of where the books will live and how they’ll be distributed are still being worked out, as the NICU needs to be vigilant about protecting their tiny patients from germs. However, Julian, Elliot and their NICU roommates have already benefited from this gift of literacy. “The nurses must have heard us read ‘Giraffes Can’t Dance’ to them 15 or 20 times,” Nick says. 

Julian and Elliot’s eyes have opened, they love to hold hands, they’re packing on the ounces, and they are working hard to spring themselves from the NICU by mastering the skills of breathing and eating without medical assistance. Meanwhile, the new parents are moved by the books that continue to arrive on their doorstep and humbled by the generosity of others. “These are the kinds of things I want my kids to learn - how to give back to your community and help other people,” Abby says. •