"Bookstart Baby gives parents something that feels like a way forwards”
Published on: 26 September 2023
Here, she shares how parents reading to their premature child can bring mutual benefits for their wellbeing and their bond during an incredibly stressful time.
Barriers faced when bonding with a premature baby
“I don't think any parents ever imagine they're going to have a premature baby,” says Fiona.
“There’s so much fear in finding yourself in that situation.Your baby is away from you, in an incubator. There are lots of noises coming from the machines, lots of lights. Doctors and nurses are having to carry out procedures on your tiny baby, involving tubes going into their noses and their veins. Things are happening to your baby at pace - sometimes without the necessary explanation until after it's happened.”
“You’ve also got that plastic barrier straight away between you and your baby. That first skin-to-skin contact is some times delayed for a little while when a premature baby is getting stable.
“The only touch you can often get is putting your hands through the incubator doors and trying to find a place on the baby’s body. It’s very different from what you imagine your first cuddles with your baby would be.”
Part of Fiona’s role is to support babies’ neurodevelopment while they’re on the neonatal unit, and follow up when they are outpatients.
“One thing parents can always do, no matter how sick their baby is, is talk to them,” she says.
“In a stressful neonatal unit environment, this can feel a little bit alien and difficult to do. You also may not quite know how to talk to a baby.
“A book can give them some simple, repetitive language to use, that has a rhythm and rhyme. It makes things a lot easier.
Collaborating to bring Bookstart Baby to the neonatal unit
Bookstart Baby - one of BookTrust’s flagship programmes - is gifted to every single new baby in England and Wales during the first year of their life.
At Wiltshire Council, Sarah Hillier is the Development Librarian, Children and Young People – and is responsible for managing the distribution of BookTrust packs to families. “As well as receiving their Bookstart Baby pack via registrars and health visitors, families can get them from our libraries as well,” says Sarah.
When Fiona reached out to ask if it would be possible to give Bookstart Baby packs to certain families a little earlier – during their time at the neonatal unit – Sarah was happy to help. She initially sent more than 50 Bookstart Baby packs to Fiona, and this relationship has continued today.
“It was a no-brainer,” Sarah says. “Having the Bookstart Baby packs to support new families going through that tricky time in their life is great. The resources are so good for a baby – by hearing their parents’ voices through reading, and helping to develop those bonds.
“One of our major objectives is early intervention and supporting families from the earliest age. Bookstart Baby is the start of that journey. Gifting Bookstart Baby packs at a neonatal unit ensures the journey starts even earlier.”
How the Bookstart Baby books have helped support both parents and premature babies
“In the neonatal unit environment, reading gives parents a purpose and the freedom to express themselves when perhaps they've felt not always included, or maybe they’re feeling like a spare part in some scenarios,” says Fiona.
The Bookstart Baby pack has a book chosen by a panel of experts (including health visitors and librarians. It also comes with a colourful finger puppet and information about the benefits of sharing rhymes and stories from an early age.
“Some parents don't naturally feel they can sing nursery rhymes,” says Fiona. The Bookstart Baby pack gives them something to start out with – a way to have simple, clear communication with their baby. It’s all about talking and doing something together.
How might a premature baby benefit from being read to by their parent?
“Very early on, hearing their parent’s voice, smelling their parent’s smell and feeling their parent’s touch is very good at stabilising a baby,” says Fiona. "If they can't have skin-to-skin contact yet, but they can still have that communication from their parent, it will help the baby to self soothe and to cope with stressful episodes. It may help with things like stabilising their heart rate and respiratory rate, too.
“The rhythm of the language also starts up that early development of communication skills, and their ability to start recognising patterns of language that parents are using. That lays down that groundwork for later communication skills.
Fiona recalls one dad in particular who found Bookstart Baby to be a lifeline
“There was one dad was very fearful about handling his baby girl because she was so little,” she says.“’He said: “Look at me. I've got these great big bear hands. How can I possibly do that?’”
“Reading the Bookstart Baby book didn't worry him as much. He felt much more confident taking on a reading role. For him, it was a way of helping his little girl develop and adding to her day without him feeling so worried about touching her or holding her in the wrong way.
“Reading definitely gave this dad the confidence to build that relationship with his daughter."
"He stopped looking so worried. He started to talk a lot more - he volunteered a lot more information about their life as a family. It was clear that he was starting to look forward more positively and feeling comfortable and relaxed to talk about things.
“By the time they were ready to leave the unit, they were quite a confident family unit - ready to go home and enjoy all the baby things they will have had planned for, rather than all the things they've had to do so far.”
Fiona adds: “It’s about giving parents something that feels like a way forwards. You see that instant relief of: 'I’ve done something for my baby. Now I can do the next thing.’”