New hospital program aims to turn babies into bookworms

By Amanda Ferguson

Sleeping peacefully on her mother’s chest, little Samantha Waller is already considered well-read, even though she’s still technically weeks away from her due date.

Michelle Waller delivered Samantha on Aug. 14, but she wasn’t due until October.

The four-week-old girl has spent the majority of her existence at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital as she undergoes care for arriving more than two months before her due date.

Michelle has used a lot of that time to not only get in some skin-to-skin contact but also read to her little early arrival.

“I should still be pregnant now,” Michelle said. “So I thought it was a good way just to bond with her just to hear my voice and also pass the time while I’m rocking her.”

Samantha’s mother is one of first to try St. Michael’s Hospital new Books to Babies program, an initiative that gifts parents with children’s books so they can read to their babies during their stay in the neo-natal intensive care unit.

The Books for Babies program was founded by Cathy O’Neill, daughter of Maryrose O’Neill. Her mother was a volunteer preemie cuddler at the hospital before her death.

Literacy was her baby. Her family hopes this program will become her legacy.

“For her it was always about telling stories as a way of connecting with little ones who couldn’t quite articulate their own words at that time,” O’Neill said at the program’s launch on Friday.

Dr. Douglas Campbell, medical director of St. Michael Hosptial’s NICU, says research has shown the earlier parents start reading to their children, the higher their reading and language skills later in childhood.

“We know that babies do respond to their parents’ voices,” Campbell said. “Having a program to start that bonding, we think it really important.”

A 2010 study out of McGill University looked at 59 parents who read to their children in the NICU. Just under 70 per cent reported reading helped them feel closer to their infants. Fifty-six per cent said they read three or more times to the babies after leaving the hospital, twice the rate in the control group that did not read in the hospital.

“We know a baby’s brain grows tremendously from the time of birth to even two to three-years old,” Campbell said. “It triples and doubles in volume and in size. So anything we can do to promote language development, literacy, create habits for families is great.”

O’Neill raised the funds for the program with her family. Together with volunteers, they secured more than 150 children’s books. They hope to grow the program over the years to include a permanent onsite library.

Hospital staff also hope to turn the program into a research study by connecting with former NICU babies as they age to measure their reading and language development levels.

For now, each parent will get two or three books to take home. Inside is a quote from Winnie the Pooh; “Always remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”

A fitting message for both parent and preemie.

To support the Books for Babies Program, go to Donations of new children’s books are also welcome; contact Amanda Hignell to arrange a drop-off.

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