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Reading to your baby in the neonatal unit

Talking, reading and singing to your baby will comfort and soothe them. It will also help them relax and build their bond with you.

The time you spend at their bedside really does make a crucial difference to your baby’s experience and their long-term development. Talking, reading and singing to your baby will comfort and soothe them. It will also help them relax and build their bond with you.

Benefits of reading aloud

There are benefits for parents too. Reading stories or singing lullabies gives you a sense of life beyond the screens and incubators. It’s also a good way to distract yourself, and might help you feel calmer. 

Hints and tips

Video Dr Nashwa Matta: The impact of sharing stories, songs and rhymes with babies in neonatal care

Dr Matta, Associate Specialist in Neonatology and Child Development explores the ways that very young babies communicate with us. She also describes the impact that talking, reading and singing to babies in a hospital setting has both on their wellbeing in the unit and on their longer-term development.

In this video, Dr. Matta refers to the mother’s voice. Don’t worry – this doesn’t mean that Dad’s voices aren’t just as important. It’s just that the available research studies have specifically examined mothers and babies. Babies will recognise their Dad's voice the same way and experience the same positive effects

Jack and the FlumFlum Tree

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(this link will open in a new window).

Full video transcript

I’m Nashwa Matta, I’m a Paediatrician in Glasgow. I’m a Neonatologist which means I work in intensive care with very sick babies and my interest is their development - child development.

The benefits of reading and singing to very young babies, even when they are sick and in intensive care, is very important. The baby recognises the parents’ voice, and they have a preference for the parents’ voice – it calms them, it helps bring growth, and when the parents are reading to their baby, especially when you have rhyme and you have tone, it just calms the baby because it’s like a conversation.

For longer term development, I have been following these babies up for 18 years and it was so obvious to me that if the mother was next to the mother, reading to the baby, I know that even if they had a rough medical start, that there is a difference in their development. Now we have a lot of papers to prove this - that early intervention, that mother voice, we know the effect of the environment on the brain, the plasticity of the brain, makes a difference to this child’s brain growth.

If you are not confident about sharing your stories with a baby remember that nobody, or no voice has the same effect as your voice on your baby; it is so important. Look in their eyes, understand their cues, touch them and see how they relax when you are there. There are certain things that they tell us ‘I’ve had enough’, for example, if they start having hiccups or yawning if they are handled, they might just say ‘leave me alone’ – or put their hands up or arch their back or look away, they’re saying ‘I’ve had enough’. If they just look at you – and a baby who is born at term has a focal distance of 10 to 12 inches – if they look at you and you feel their body relax, and have their hands like this (closed to chest) or to their mouth, you know they are relaxed.

I want you to understand that your baby’s unique and you are one unit with your baby. No medical equipment and no medical staff or nursing staff would know the baby more than you do. So I want you to understand your baby, the language and be empowered to build this relationship and when you go home, you carry on knowing your baby and building this relationship.