Squidge has been read a bedtime story almost since the day he was born. After receiving the phone call from the midwife telling us that Squidge needed to be admitted to hospital my first coherent sentence after the floods of tears was “He needs to have some stories to take with him.”
I want him to grow up with the ability to imagine the characters and environments as he wants them to be. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not remotely anti-television in this house but even now I still prefer to imagine how I think people or places should look rather than being shown someone elses interpretation.
Reading has always been an important part of my life. Every week my Mum would take me to the library and I would borrow as many books as my children’s card allowed. Relatives knew that my favourite present was book tokens and at primary school I was frequently in trouble for reading under the table during lessons I found boring.
Fortunately my job allows me to use a flowery calculator for all necessary maths otherwise my nursing career would probably have been over before it even started.
Both me and my husband want reading to be important to Squidge although clearly we are not going to try and force him to be a bookworm.
(I think this is probably a book caterpillar but you get the idea)
He has his own shelf on our bookcase, I regularly go to our very well stocked Oxfam in search of quality second hand books and we take him to the library to play in the play area and to find new stories to read.
This is as much for our own sanity as it is for Squidge’s enjoyment as children’s book are not cheap and while some of the illustrations are beautiful they don’t tend to contain many words and the story lines tend to be rather predictable.
Stories and reading aren’t just for bedtime but this is the time of day when Squidge is at his snuggliest and he will cuddle up in his sleeping bag on my husband’s lap and gently pat the pages as they’re turned.
Story time is a peaceful time for cuddles on the sofa as a family; the deep rumbling of my husbands voice as he reads settles Squidge and makes him sleepy. When he’s not well being read to comforts him and helps him to relax even if he feels rubbish.
So it makes me a bit sad that parents reading to their children on the unit is a rarity as I believe that all children, no matter how sick or small benefit from being read to. Having been in hospital with Squidge I know it feels a bit odd to be surrounded by people and reading aloud. You wonder whether you sound silly or if you’re disturbing the other parents and children but more often than not you’ll find them listening and enjoying the experience of hearing someone reading.
One of the things I found particularly difficult about having antenatal depression was that it stole my ability to read; to lose myself in a book and forget about everything else. So my husband read to me; stories I remembered my Mum reading, history books, newspapers articles. The first time I read a whole book after Squidge was born I started to feel like me again.
Reading to their baby on NICU isn’t the easiest thing for parents; the monitors and alarms are noisy, they can be interrupted by staff needing to ask questions or carry out procedures for the baby and as the stressed parent of a sick baby it’s unsurprising that reading isn’t at the top of their to-do list. We’re not allowed to keep a stock of books on the unit as being paper means they can’t be cleaned in order for them to be used by multiple parents and babies. Parents are more than welcome to bring books for their own child but with many parents travelling to and from the hospital daily or staying in our emergency accommodation packing reading material isn’t a priority.
Unless you’re me.
Some parents adapt what they have wit them, knowing that their baby will benefit from hearing their parents voices as opposed to content of the reading material. One Dad used to sit at his critically ill baby’s cot side and read him the stocks and shares from the Financial Times. We found it beautiful even though the content was not exactly typical because this Dad would sit there and read for hours just so his baby son knew he was there. The little boy was so ill he couldn’t move or open his eyes and he had so many lines and pieces of equipment attached to him that there weren’t many places he could be touched but he could hear.
For the parents of babies whose lives we know will be short one of the things they often want to do for their baby is to read them a story. I can still see the parents of a little boy who died a few days later carefully holding him on a pillow and reading ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ to him.
Reading a story is a tiny bit of normality for babies and for parents in the otherwise completely abnormal environment of NICU. Just as a bedtime story for a child at home is associated with sleep it’s the same for some babies on the unit; clearly not when they’re critically ill but when they’re getting towards being discharged home. A few weeks ago a colleague found an eBook on the internet to read to a baby who was difficult to settle and by the time she’d finished reading the little boy had fallen asleep in her lap.
All the babies on NICU are sick or are recovering and while it is clinical interventions that have kept them alive and in most cases made them well, cuddles, normal development and family time are still important to us as Nurses, the parents and for the babies themselves.