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A Mother's Story

The Benefits of Reading in the Neonatal Unit

Dr Julie-Clare Becher Consultant Neonatologistpresented at the Scottish Neonatal Nurses Conference in June 2019.

Language Nutrition in the NNU

What is language nutrition?

Use of language, beginning even before birth, that is rich in interaction, quality and quantity so that it nourishes a child socially, neurologically, and linguistically

Child-directed speech best helps babies learn


Why is language nutrition so important? 

Reading to a baby increases a baby’s reading and writing skills

How much and how well parents talk, interact and read with their baby improves their baby’s readiness for school and academic performance

The first 3 years are the most important 

Mahoney et al, Adv Neonatal Care 2017


“30-million word gap”

One of the strongest predictors of how well a child will get on at school is the quality and quantity of words spoken to him or her in the first 3 years of life

Dickinson et al. Child Dev 2011

Children who hear less words have vocabularies that are half the size of their peers by age 3. This puts them at a disadvantage before they even get to school

Rowet al. Child Dev 2011

This is what is called the “word gap”, and it can lead to differences not just at school but later in life

Webb et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci 2015

Fernald et al. Dev Sci 2013


Poor literacy at Primary 3...

is associated with...

    •    Risky behaviours

    •    Unemployment

    •    Being a victim of violence

    •    Involvement in crime

    •    Chronic ill health and disease an adult


Brain development through pregnancy

NB. Between 23-25 weeks gestation, all hearing apparatus is fully developed within the fetus

By age of 4 years 80% of neural synapses, that is the connections within the brain, have formed


Sound in the NICU

Sound in the NICU can be characterised as unwanted noise by being:

  • Loud 

  • Continuous

  • Unpredictable

  • Unshielded

  • High frequency and mechanical/electronic

Spoken language is only 2-3% of sound exposure with little being the maternal spoken word

Lahav et al. Front Neurosci 2014

Around 30-50% of all preterm infants and some sick term babies will experience language challenges as they grow up

Adams-Chapman et al. Early Hum Dev 2015

Squarza et al. Front Psychol 2016


‘Recorded’ language nutrition

Preterm babies who hear a recording of their mum’s voice speaking or singing ​

  • Get to full feeds quicker

  • Show less stress responses

  • Have better oxygen saturations

  • Have better weight gain

  • Have better sucking

  • Have shorter hospital stay

  • Have larger size and better functioning of the hearing region of the brain

Auditory brain development in premature infants: 

the importance of early experience

McMahon et al 2012


What’s in it for parents?

Studies have shown that if parents read regularly to their baby they experience:

  • an increase in bonding

  • a decrease in stress

  • a feeling of being closer to their baby

  • a better sense of control and normalcy 



When I read to her, I had the impression I was really with her. She was in the middle of the room, on a HIFI ventilator, with lots of action around her, and I couldn't hold her, but I think I really calmed her when I read.

I would never have thought to read to such a young baby. I didn't know what to say (when I first saw him) ... The nurse told me I could read to him if I wanted to and gave me a book. I started to read, and then the words came.

The NICU is so crowded, and a hard place to be. Reading to my baby was a minute of intimacy that I really needed.

I found it hard to talk to him, especially since he was so sick and did not respond. Reading was a way to feel close to him.

In the beginning, when she was in the incubator, it helped to be able to read to her. When we didn't know anything we could do for her, it was nice to do a normal thing.

In the hospital, I found it really useful to have a book to read to him. It gave us something normal to do. It humanised a very difficult situation.

Scottish Book Trust

Scottish Book Trust is a national charity that believes books, reading and writing have the power to change lives.

A love of reading inspires creativity, improves employment opportunities, mental health and wellbeing, and is one of the most effective ways to help children escape the poverty cycle.

Bookbug Bags

Bookbug gifts book bags to every child in Scotland. They also run free song & rhymes sessions across the country.

Sharing stories, songs and rhymes with your child has many wonderful benefits. It's lots of fun and just a few minutes a day will:

  • Develop your child’s language skills

  • Give you time to cuddle and help you bond with your child

  • Help you and your child feel more relaxed

  • Boost your child’s confidence

  • Encourage your child to draw and write

  • Give your child a head start in life


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