M Health Fairview expands ‘Reach Out and Read’ initiative to NICU, first of its kind in Minnesota

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M Health Fairview is tapping into the magic of reading. Families with babies in the NICU are now provided books to share with their infant. It’s the first literacy program of its kind in Minnesota, according to the healthcare provider.

“It has definitely helped me create a bond with her,” said Roidely Garcia Sanchez, whose daughter has been in the hospital since she was born at just 22 weeks old in January. “I think it relaxes her for sure.”

She told us she reads to her daughter daily, in the morning and at bedtime, in both English and Spanish.

“Usually when I’m doing kangaroo care,” said Garcia Sanchez. “When she’s on your chest and you just kind of lay down and we’re just reading and cuddling.”

Every Tuesday, families in the intermediate care center receive a new book. The goal is to encourage parents to read to their baby as often as they can.

“Hearing language is a really important part of brain development for infants and children,” said Dr. Lauren Buckley, the neonatology fellow at the University of Minnesota who started the program. “We know that babies that are here in the NICU are at risk of hearing not a lot of language during their early weeks and months of life, there are loud machines, ventilators, it can be isolating in the room.”

M Health Fairview started handing out books in the NICU in March, as part of a pilot program through the national literacy organization Reach Out and Read. The healthcare provider has partnered with the nonprofit for years to provide books for kids at annual checkups.

“We know that holding your baby, reading to your baby, sharing your voice with your baby is really positive and can help counteract some of those other early stressors that our babies and parents experience here in the NICU,” said Dr. Buckley.

According to Reach Out and Read, there are seven sites nationwide participating in a NICU pilot program.

Dr. Buckley said she was inspired to bring the program to her hospital after reading about it in a publication. It’s taken several years to implement it, from the initial application to extensive training for staff.

“Reach Out and Read is a really well-respected and rigorous organization, they want to make sure the community sites they’re supporting are really held to a high standard,” she said. “We piloted this program here in our intermediate care center, so kind of our step down part of the NICU at Masonic Children’s Hospital. We would love to expand it to the fourth floor part of our NICU where our more acute babies are cared for and also to our other community NICUs.”

They distribute about 22 to 25 books each week. The team works to provide books that connect with each family’s interests and language needs.

The weekly book drop-offs also provide families a mini-library to take home with them when their child leaves the hospital.

“We’ve gotten really positive feedback from parents,” said Dr. Buckley. “I think sometimes we overcomplicate things as parents and caregivers. We want to do what’s best for our children and sometimes we just have to get back to the basics of snuggling and reading a good book. It’s really good for moms, dads and babies.”

The nonprofit Reach Out and Read told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS it’s learning from each of the NICU pilot programs, with the goal of hopefully implementing a national program for infants.

“I just love how I can read to her and I hope other parents do the same as well,” said Garcia Sanchez. “You forget what’s going on around you and focus on that moment with you and your baby, which is great.”