First impression: Hospital program provides newborns with free book

In the neonatal intensive care unit at Community Hospital South, the youngest and most vulnerable patients struggle to survive.

Newborns, cocooned in incubators and surrounded by wires, sensors and equipment, require the utmost care as medical professionals constantly monitor their condition.

In those earliest days, the babies can miss out on some of the contact and bonding with their parents that is vital for their development.

Palak Shah, a physical therapist in the NICU at Community Hospital South, felt compelled to find a way to connect these tiny patients with the people who love them most.

“When babies are in the NICU, there is a lot of stress inherent to the environment. There a lights, cords, lines, heel sticks — all of the sensory system is bombarded with medically necessary but what could be negative input,” she said. “But when the baby hears the caregivers’ voices, there is a point of connection. It allows them to bond at a different level.”

Shah’s motivation led to the creation of the First Edition program within the hospital. Through the initiative, every baby born at Community Hospital South is given a free book, so that parents, grandparents, siblings and other loved ones can read to them.

The simple act of hearing that voice can soothe the child in an otherwise stressful environment, and make an impact immediately in that baby’s development, Shah said.

“I feel like this project is going to be very impactful, one baby at a time,” she said. “Even if we don’t see that impact in our lifetime, as long as it brings that awareness into families that books can provide an opportunity of snuggling and bonding, that reading can become a special activity.”

In her work providing babies in the NICU with physical therapy, Shah utilizes neonatal touch and massage. The practice has been found to encourage interaction between parents and their baby, help the baby relax and sleep, positively affect infant hormones that control stress and reduce crying.

But in her experience, Shah found that sound can be one of the most powerful sensory development tools, particularly for children in the NICU.

“Touch can still be scary while the baby is in the NICU,” she said. “All of the other senses may not be in parents’ and caregivers’ hands to make a difference. So sound, I felt, would be the easiest way for them to feel like they’re making a difference in their baby’s life.”

Research has shown that reading to a newborn baby can be one of the most important things parents can do to support growth and development, according to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Hearing language and words can help connect brain cells, setting up the neural pathways for future learning.

Most importantly, while caregivers may not be able to have physical contact with their baby, reading can help them bond, Shah said.

“When it is introduced as a directed sound, that can help with brain development. There are the sensory parts of the brain that pick up on that, and it allows them to bond and get closer, so they know who their caregivers are,” she said.

Shah started working on the project in February of 2020. To encourage parents to speak out loud to their newborn, Shah turned to reading. Her initial idea was a create a library in the NICU, where people could borrow books to take and read to their babies.

But due to the delicate condition of newborns in the NICU, and the potential for germs to be passed around along with books, that idea was rejected.

So Shah shifted focus — collecting new books that could be distributed to families. Though her focus was initially on babies admitted to the NICU, the program garnered interest from the entire maternity unit.

“It’s a great resource. We’re always encouraging literacy and early reading for development. I thought it was very honorable that she had taken it upon herself to own that project,” said Jaimee Goodman, maternity nursing director for Community Hospital South. “It’s not really in her scope of the things she normally does for us, so I thought it was commendable that she did this.”

Shah worked to find out approximately how many books she’d need each year for the First Edition program. The estimate she came up with was about 1,600 to 2,000 each year.

She reached out to Community Hospital South’s volunteer team to figure out the best avenue for acquiring books. One of the team members had been a former employee of AT&T, and directed her to the company’s Pioneers program, a volunteer network working in communities across the country.

One of the main activities of the network is to donate books, and that program provided a sizeable donation to First Edition.

Together with a book drive held in November, Shah collected 1,435 books. Community Hospital South’s volunteer auxiliary pledged to cover the gap of books needed for the year.

Shah also reached out to 22 publishers asking for donations of children’s books. Penguin Random House provided a donation, while the Barnes and Noble store in Greenwood offered to include the First Edition program in its holiday drive for 2022.

“All of the boxes came in, and I was able to make space within the building designated for those books. I handle the books — getting them out, counting them, putting them on shelves,” she said.

By Dec. 1, the first books were distributed to families in the hospital. Shah included information about the importance of reading to newborns, in addition to programs information about First Edition. Her goal is eventually to distribute bookmarks with QR codes that parents can scan to get that information online.

“Families love it. It’s been received very well. They’re very grateful for the books, and I think even the staff has gotten into it,” Goodman said. “We’ve had a lot of donations to the program from the staff, so I think it’s been received very well on both ends.”

Shah is excited to see the program take off and thankful for all of the support she’s received from people — the hospital’s volunteer auxiliary and volunteer team, all of the registered nurses in the hospital’s NICU and maternity care, her supervisor, the creative and marketing teams who are working on the bookmark design.

With all of their help, she doesn’t know what would have happened to her idea. And newborns would be missing out on a beneficial program.

“For me, it’s always been about the babies, and it always will be about the babies. This is something that I truly, truly love working on and doing for the babies in the NICU,” Shah said.