Hospital's reading program helps families with babies in NICU bond

Parents say reading the books helps form a bond with their newborns.

March 25, 2018, 11:46 AM

New York -- When Brad and Kara Curran’s twin sons were admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at a Pittsburgh hospital earlier this month, the Currans said they had no idea what to expect.

Their sons, Aiden and Eli -- born around eight weeks early and each weighing just over five pounds -- had difficulty breathing and relied on feeding tubes to survive.

Eli Curran, left, and Aiden Curran, right, are treated in the neo-natal intensive care unit at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.
Brad and Kara Curran

Brad Curran has taken to arriving at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Magee-Womens Hospital at 5:30 each morning to see his sons before he goes to work. Kara Curran arrives at the hospital after dropping her 2-year-old daughter at daycare.

While the Currans struggle to find a sense of normalcy in their situation, they are relying on a unique program at Magee-Womens Hospital in which each NICU family receives a free children's book.

Brad and Kara Curran read to their twin sons in the neo-natal intensive care unit at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.
UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital

“I try to read every morning when I’m in there with them,” Brad Curran told ABC News. “It lets you bond with them because you feel pretty helpless when you’re sitting there.”

“You’re just staring at babies with a bunch of monitors and tubes and it’s scary,” he continued. “Reading to them lets you pass the time and is a bond when there’s not much else.”

Brad Curran reads a donated book to his son in the neo-natal intensive care unit at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.
UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital

For Kara Curran, getting new books for her sons makes her feel like she is reading to them at home, like she did with her daughter. She also believes the books serve a deeper purpose.

“When you’re at home, alone with your new babies, they only hear your voice, but now they’re hearing doctors and nurses and staff,” she said. “So I feel like we need to talk to them a lot so they know we’re important in their lives.”

Suzy Guess, the director of the hospital’s NICU, started the book donation program and is now leading a campaign to keep it going.

Suzy Guess stands by a book cart in the neo-natal intensive care unit at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.
UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital

“Giving parents the simplest thing as a book, it gives them that family space and family time that is so important,” she said. “It gives them the parenting back.”

She added, “It also shares their voice with the baby and the sense of presence and, for babies, that’s the big piece.”

Guess started collecting children's books for NICU families when she noticed parents reading to their newborns while holding them or through the portholes of the incubator.

“One dad was reading through a porthole, with a tiny, tiny baby on the vent, and he was reading a chapter book. It was so sweet,” she said. “He was a teacher and knew the importance of reading.”

Suzy Guess reads a children's book alongside Brad and Kara Curran and their newborn sons.
UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital

The NICU book program received a crucial boost last summer from “NICU grads,” as former patients are affectionately called. One graduate led a community service project to gather books, while two other graduates asked for books instead of birthday presents, according to Guess.

The hospital requires new books for the NICU families to reduce the risk of infection. With approximately 2,000 babies admitted to the NICU each year, the hospital is now in need of more books.

Suzy Guess and Brad and Kara Curran look at children's books at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.
UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital

“There’s a lot of positive that comes out of a simple book,” said Guess, adding that March is National Reading Month. “Babies learn the familiarity of their parents, it is soothing to them and it also stimulates future language development.”

The books are also a sign of hope for the parents. Books donated by NICU graduates are noted with a sticker, a reminder for parents that their newborns have the chance for a limitless future.

“We’ll take [the books] home so it’ll be a little memory of our time here,” said Kara Curran.

Donations of new books can be sent to the hospital here: UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, ATTN: NICU, 300 Halket Street, Pittsburgh PA, 15213.