Volunteers read stories to NICU babies in their own language
The NICU at Hennepin Healthcare is a noisy place. There’s the buzz of ventilator sounds, alarms going off, phones ringing, and babies crying. Thanks to a new program, NICU babies are hearing another happier sound, too – children’s books read in their own language.
“Babies in the NICU are exposed to noise,” said Kolleen Amon, a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner in Hennepin Healthcare’s NICU. “NICU babies are not exposed to much speaking. Then that deficit in exposure to vocabulary continues.”
While attending a conference, Kolleen was inspired by a presentation on a neonatal intensive language nutrition program. Kolleen connected with Betsy SchaeferRoob, Hennepin Healthcare’s Children’s Literacy Liaison, where she found out the national Reach Out and Read program was preparing to launch a pilot program for reading in the NICU.
Hennepin Healthcare’s NICU joined the pilot program one year ago, in August 2022, to bring books and reading to their tiny patients. The NICU purchases new books from Reach Out and Read through donations. In one year of this program, the NICU has distributed 400 books available in 16 languages: Spanish, Somali, Hmong, Ojibwe, Oromo, Arabic, and more. It allows the babies to be read to in their native language even when their families are not around.
“How amazing to have our babies not only hear English but then be able to hear the languages that they were hearing inside mom,” Kolleen said.
With Reach Out and Read, families can engage with their babies and language nutrition before they go home. Kolleen continued, “In the NICU environment, where families probably feel so out of control, everything is so scary, reading helps to just have something they can do for their baby to grow their brain.”
Babies can start being read to at 33 weeks old when they will receive their first book. Every other Wednesday, a new book is added to their growing library. “It’s about getting the families used to a book a day,” said Kolleen. When the babies graduate from the NICU, they get to take home their books.
Ellen Kluz is a former Reach Out and Read employee and started as a volunteer at Hennepin right after the program began in the NICU. She reads to the babies, holds the babies, and helps in distributing and organizing the books. Ellen said, “It’s giving the littlest and most vulnerable in our world a head-start in development.” She continued, “Reading at any age, the earliest age, is life-changing.”
The NICU is now welcoming more volunteers, especially multilingual readers. Visit the Hospital Volunteer Program page to learn more and start your application. Volunteers placed in the NICU are provided with training and typically commit to a couple of hours a week.
All book purchases rely on donated funds. To support this fund, visit the Hennepin Healthcare Foundation donate page, select Other, and type in NICU Reach Out & Read Fund 308.
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