Studies show private neonatal intensive care unit rooms can be too quiet, with premature babies not getting enough sound and stimulation, so Virginia Hospital Center uses trained volunteers to read popular children’s books to its tiniest patients when their parents can’t be there.
Lauri Willner said it’s her dream job, even though she doesn’t get paid to do it.
“Sometimes they’ll snuggle into your body and look up at you, and you just know you’re doing something good, something to help them get started,” she said.
She volunteers once a week at the hospital in Arlington, spending up to three hours reading and singing to babies in NICU as part of the Book Buddies program.
“I have been known to sing show tunes,” she said. “I am a ‘Sound of Music’ person, so the hills come alive at times.”
Private NICU rooms allow parents to bond with their babies, but studies show they may impact an infant's development because they're not exposed to as much beneficial sound and stimulation compared to open hospital wards where babies are kept together.
Programs like Book Buddies can help a baby gain weight faster and sleep better, and research shows it leads to shorter hospital stays and can improve a baby's language development skills.
“They tell you about skin to skin contact and how good it is for the kid,” Joshua Wise said. “You can watch on the monitor. His heart rate slows down a little bit, and everything calms down.”
Jamie and Joshua Wise said they were grateful for the volunteers as they split their time between the hospital — where their son Thomas spent the first two months of his life — work and their two young children at home.
“If I’m not here or he’s not here and somebody is here, literally, that’s their only job is to read or to hold my child, I’m all for it,” Jamie Wise said. “I don’t know any child of any age that doesn’t benefit from being read to and held and having human contact whether it’s a stranger or a parent.”
Volunteering for parents like the Wises is Willner’s way of giving back.
“My children were both born here at Virginia Hospital Center, and they were preemies,” she said. “I just felt a tug to be part of it and kind of a way to say thank you.”
She was able to watch Thomas’ development.
“That’s one of the neatest things is to come back week by week and see how the babies have progressed and gotten stronger and bigger and more alert,” she said.
Thomas now weighs in at almost 7 pounds and was discharged the day after Thanksgiving.
Virginia Hospital Center started its Book Buddies program in 2018 and is always looking for volunteers.