DALLAS — Anna Aguilar always knew she’d read to her baby. What mom doesn’t eagerly anticipate sitting in a comfortable chair, cradling that precious bundle with one hand while holding a book in the other?
The Dallas Morning News reports as a teacher, she knows the mesmerizing effect of books: The joy, the wonder, the delight at hearing a story, plus the internal development and growth that reading facilitates.
But life has a way of tossing a book in our path, an obstacle to be picked up and leafed through, brushed off and opened. Just not, perhaps, to the page we were anticipating.
Which is why, nine weeks after Cannon’s birth, Aguilar was reading to her son, just not how she assumed she would be. Instead of in a nursery at the Forney home she shares with her husband, Mario, she was in the neonatal intensive care unit at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
Instead of leaning back in a rocking chair, she leans into a portal in his incubator. Her voice, though, is as it would be anywhere: clear, steady, loving.
“I’m here 10 to 12 hours a day,” says Aguilar, who gave birth to Cannon on Jan. 7, barely a month past the halfway point in her pregnancy. She had developed dangerously high blood pressure; her baby was in distress and had to be delivered via emergency cesarean section. He weighed 1 pound, 2 ounces. Ten days later, he developed a life-threatening infection. A week later, he underwent surgery to close a hole in his heart, which, had he been full-term, would probably have closed on its own.
The last two months haven’t been easy. Reading to Cannon has been a lifeline, a comfort to them both. Initially, she says, she just talked to him. But “you run out of things to say. I feel he gets bored with me saying, ‘I love you, I love you’ over and over.”
So when nurse Rowena Cadungog asked if she’d be interested in reading books to Cannon as part of a pilot program called KangaREAD — a take on “kangaroo care,” in which skin-to-skin, parent-child contact is encouraged — Aguilar was delighted.
“I’ll read Bible stories, anything that rhymes or has cadence,” she says. “The first was ‘Mama Loves You So.’ I bawled. But I was determined to finish it.
An NICU can be a roller coaster of triumph and sorrow, of setbacks and strides. That takes a toll on parents, says Dr. Mustafa Suterwala, a neonatologist who has worked in the Baylor NICU for 16 years. About 30 percent of parents he deals with, he says, “have something like PTSD.”
“Parents in NICU are overwhelmed emotionally,” Suterwala says. “They feel helpless. Their baby is so small and the nurses are doing everything. Reading allows the parents to do something, to talk to the baby.”
In utero, the 28- to 32-week mark is the point when babies recognize their mother’s voice, he says. So when they’re not inside their mother’s body at that age, hearing it is especially important for development.
And, simply, “It helps you to be present with them,” says Aguilar, whose husband also reads to Cannon. “This is something I can do for my baby. As a teacher, I know how important it is to read to children.”
Says Suterwala, “My No. 1 thing: Read to the baby.”
“Open the portal and read,” Cadungog says.
“I watch his monitor,” Aguilar says of her son. “At times his vitals get better and I know I’m calming him. He’s already in a stressful situation.”
Occupational therapist Victoria Coats, who works in the NICU, also sees in her young patients the benefits of reading.
“We look for movement, tone, reflexes,” she says. “We can tell when certain babies are stressed and notice certain behaviors when they’re being read to. When the mom is reading, the baby brings his hands to his mouth. There are certain calming movements.”
Her son Nate, who recently turned 15, was a preemie. So were Cadungog’s twin daughters, who are now 17.
“They weighed 1 pound, 15 ounces,” Cadungog says. “I cried. I bawled. Then I said, ‘I’m not going to cry. I’m going to read.’ Amazingly, I felt so much better: ‘I’m here. Mommy’s here.’”
And, as the twins got older, the language delay they’d had was corrected, she says.
Although studies have shown that in 50 to 60 percent of preemies, speech is delayed, Suterwala says, “research proves hearing the mother’s voice has a snowball effect. The babies speak better, understand better, have higher graduation rates.”
Reading “promotes bonding as well as language and vocabulary development,” adds Cadungog. All of which figured into her excitement when, in 2015, she attended a nursing conference in Temple. “There was a program in which they spoke about nurturing the premature brain. It’s so sensitive to the mother’s voice, to stress.
“They talked about how the negative stress at the NICU can be decreased,” she says. “I spoke with my director and was so excited: ‘Can we do this in NICU?’ “
Before the program, she says, there were no books in that area. The Volunteer Services department provided a grant to buy 320 books for the pilot program and continues to provide them on an ongoing basis. There are now 300 Dr. Seuss books, plus 120 bilingual books. All babies go home with a book. Additionally, in the clinic where preemies go for follow-up visits, Suterwala says, “We hand out books.”
“Our goal,” Cadungog says, “is to have this in every NICU in Texas.”
Until then, it’s one word, one rhyme, one story at a time.
“It’s very rewarding,” Cadungog says, “to see Anna find joy in reading, and joy with her baby.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
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