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OHSU program provides books, joy for newborn patients, families

Reading promotes healthy childhood development, supports parent-child bonding; Reach Out and Read NICU provides books, benefits of reading to premature, ill infants
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Christine McKee reads to baby Josie at Doernbecher Children's Hospital. Reading with children promotes brain health and supports cognitive, social and emotional development. (Courtesy of Christine McKee)
Christine McKee reads to baby Josie at Doernbecher Children's Hospital. Reading with children promotes brain health and supports cognitive, social and emotional development. (Courtesy of Christine McKee)

August marks one year since the implementation of OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital’s Reach Out and Read NICU Program. Reach Out and Read is a national program that promotes incorporating books into pediatric care and fosters the health benefits of reading.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends shared reading beginning at birth. Research shows that reading with children promotes brain health and supports cognitive, social and emotional development. Reading also facilitates parent-infant bonding and provides an opportunity for parents to create meaningful, positive experiences with their child.

OHSU implemented Reach Out and Read in outpatient settings many years ago, offering books to children during routine wellness visits. Seeing an opportunity to also provide Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, infants the benefits of reading, Catherine G. Caruso, D.O., neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics in the OHSU School of Medicine, worked with the Reach Out and Read program to adapt the program for the NICU. The NICU provides care for premature and critically ill newborns who are often at risk for developmental delays, which shared reading may help reduce.

“The NICU is a really hard place for parents and families. We want to make that time more positive for them, even if it’s just a few moments a day,” Caruso says. “These books are a tool for parents to interact with their babies in what can be a stressful, difficult environment. Seeing families create these special moments over books is something that brings such joy to the whole unit.”

Every two weeks, the program provides a children’s book — paired with education about shared reading — to the family of each baby admitted, which they are able to use during their time in the NICU, and also take home with them once their child has been discharged. Books are currently available in English, Spanish and a few other languages, and staff hope to continue to expand the library of available titles.   

Since its launch in August 2022, the program has provided over 1,000 books to more than 400 families staying in the NICU. Since many families stay in the NICU for a prolonged time, babies can go home with a “starter library” of books: About 15% of babies receive five or more books during their NICU stay.

Caruso says many NICU parents haven’t incorporated reading into their daily routine because they believe their child is too young, but she emphasizes that no matter a child’s age or health condition, reading can build connection and create joy for families.

Bright spot in the NICU

For Christine McKee, reading was a bright spot for her and her family during their stay in the NICU.

The McKees came to the NICU the day after their daughter Josie was born this past December. Josie’s OHSU Doernbecher heatlh care team discovered she was suffering from a severe bowel obstruction, and at the same time, diagnosed her with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the functioning of the lungs and other organs. Josie underwent three surgeries during her 106-day-long stay in the NICU.

“It was the hardest, most difficult time of our life,” McKee recalled. “But we just leaned on one another and took things one day at a time.”

To support OHSU’s Reach Out and Read program, visit the OHSU Foundation website. To designate your gift, select fund “Other Area” and search “Reach Out and Read NICU Program.” All donations go directly to the purchase of new books to be dispersed to families and will help staff expand language offerings.

While McKee had known about the benefits of reading to children, it wasn’t something she thought would be offered during their time in the hospital.

“When they came over to our room with the cart full of books, I was so excited,” she said. “The last thing you think about in these situations is bringing a book from home, so this became something really positive we could look forward to.”

McKee said the time spent bonding with her daughter while reading became one of the few positive things to come out of that difficult experience. “I could tell she really enjoyed looking at the pictures and hearing my voice,” she said. “But it was equally as beneficial to me as it was to her.”

With Josie now healthy and thriving at home, McKee says reading remains a core part of their daily lives.

“Reading is so important to us. It’s a part of our routine we do before naps and bedtime,” she said. “It’s also been great to bring the books we received at OHSU home to read to our other daughter and seeing her vocabulary grow.”


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