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Reading in the Neonatal Unit - A Mother's Story


Partnership with Scottish Book Trust

When their twin boys were born prematurely, David and Gemma Springford spent over eight weeks in a neonatal unit. Reading books to their babies helped them to bond with their boys and formed some of their most special memories as a family.

'Jack and the FlumFlum Tree' was a particular family favourite and Dave and Gemma have donated a copy of this book to babies in neonatal units across Scotland, in partnership with Scottish Book Trust. Find out more about their experience and how they feel reading in the unit helped them in this film.

Dr Julie-Clare Becher Consultant Neonatologist

Presented at the Scottish Neonatal Nurses Conference in June 2019



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.


​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 



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