UIHC Participated in NICU National Reading Competition to Promote Brain Development


The UIHC participated in the second annual NICU Reading Marathon run by Babies with Books. Each NICU patient received a copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle to promote cognitive nutrition.

Parents of babies in intensive care are usually limited to looking from the side. However, in the neonatal intensive care unit of the University of Iowa hospitals and clinics, parents and nurses collaborated to read a childhood classic to improve their children’s speech recognition.

The UIHC Stead Family Children’s Hospital NICU participated in a national reading athon from September 13-23. The NICU has promoted reading, especially to premature babies, as a way to encourage speech recognition in parents and brain development from an early age.

Babies with books, a national youth-led organization bringing early literacy to health care from neonatal intensive care units, launched the national read-a-thon in 2020. This year, the organization contacted the UIHC to participating against other neonatal intensive care units across the country, Marissa Johnson, lead clinical nursing practice at UIHC, said.

Johnson said the NICU had distributed registers to parents and information about the importance of reading to each patient. They tracked every occurrence of reading by recording it on every newspaper, she said.

“Reading during pregnancy begins this continuum of reading and promoting literacy,” Johnson said. “If they start while they’re pregnant, they’re probably going after the baby is born.”

The thematic book was “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, Johnson said. The NICU was focusing on cognitive nutrition and reading as the food to grow babies’ developing brains, she said.

Each patient at the Children’s Hospital received a copy of the book, provided with funds from the Hospital’s Janice and Bruce Ellig Children’s Library.

Stephanie Lee, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and neonatology at UIHC, said babies start to develop hearing around 26 weeks in utero, when parents should start reading to their babies.

Lee said it is especially important to practice reading when babies are premature.

“When babies are born early, they don’t have as much normal exposure to voices and sounds,” Lee said. “It is important to provide these positive sounds so that they can continue to develop their brain circuits as if they were not born early.”

Babies have fewer opportunities for brain and language development if they don’t receive these positive sounds, Lee said.

“When there are no parents present or the baby is not receiving positive sounds, such as reading or singing, there is a negative impact on his trajectory for language and long-term cognitive results,” Lee said. “Babies in quiet rooms perform worse than babies exposed to voices and good sound. “

Assistant nurse in charge of labor and mother-to-child delivery at UIHC and new mother, Alyssa Shelby, said she started reading to her son Liam to comfort him alongside her husband.

“We read to Liam, especially when he was in isolation before we could hold him when we wanted to,” Shelby said. “From the start he knew our voices, so being able to use our voices and read to him was a way to make him feel like I was comforting him.”

This allowed Liam to recognize his parents’ voice, improving his early brain development, Shelby said.

“When I walked into the room he knew I was there when I started talking to him,” Shelby said. “I didn’t expect him to know who I was that fast, so it was special.”

While emphasizing the importance of reading, it’s important that babies have this one-on-one interaction rather than watching TV, Lee said.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of two should not watch television, including YouTube videos.

“In-person reading involves more interaction with the child, which is a give-and-take interaction,” Lee said. “One-on-one interactions strengthen the relationship between a parent and child that a television screen cannot replace.”

Although this is the first year of UIHC participation, the NICU hopes to participate in the coming years to promote reading from an early age, Johnson said.

Johnson said staff plan to increase participation in the years to come, improving outcomes for babies and their development.

“Their brains grow out in the environment rather than in utero, so having these cognitive stimuli for the brain is beneficial for growth,” Johnson said. “The more a baby is exposed to language, it greatly promotes his literacy until kindergarten and beyond.”

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