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Rep. Sewell, UAB Medicine Launch Book Vending Machine in NICU for Premature Babies

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell reads a book in UAB's Regional Newborn Intensive Care Unit and the Continuing Care Nursery. (UAB)

By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson

For The Birmingham Times

It’s a program that has seen tremendous success in helping premature babies and their parents.

On Friday, Representative Terri Sewell joined staff of UAB Medicine for an expansion of their NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) Bookworm program with the launch of a new vending machine.

Sewell said the program has special significance for her.

“My mom was a librarian for 40 years,” said the congresswoman. “What a great way to honor the great work that you’re doing here at the NICU, but also, to honor my mommy, who told me that I could travel through books.”

Sewell, who said she lost her mom three years ago, added, “studies have shown even premature babies, when listening to the voices of their parents and others, it improves outcomes. We know that.”

Parents earn tokens through activities with their babies and educational programs, which can, in exchange, be redeemed for books from the vending machine. These new books have been donated from various organizations, including Reach Out and Read – Alabama, Legacy Federal Credit Union and a local Jack and Jill chapter.

During the event, Sewell read a book from the vending machine to the babies in the Regional Newborn Intensive Care Unit and the Continuing Care Nursery.

The NICU Bookworm program was created in 2021 by Dr. Viral Jain, an assistant professor of pediatrics at UAB, who said the expansion of the program is a celebration for the caregivers and parents who, despite the challenges they face, do everything they can to help premature babies.

“We first-hand see the challenges our babies face, but we also know how important it is for our babies to feel the power of their parents – the power of the parenting touch and the power of the parenting voice,” said Jain, who added, “nothing can replace the sound of the parent’s voice, nor the warmth of their touch.”

Studies show premature and sick newborn infants have an increased risk for neurodevelopmental deficits in language and reading.

Not only will reading to the infants help to decrease this deficit, but it will also increase parent-infant bonding and encourage shared reading starting at birth, according to medical professionals.

Reading to infants has far more implications beyond premature babies in the NICU unit, Jain said.

Our state ranks as one of the lowest in early school readiness,” said the doctor. “If we must solve this crisis, we must start early, when the brain experiences the (most) rapid growth in the first year of life. Giving our children the best possible start in life, shared reading is truly the act with the lowest investment and the highest return.”

Dr. Mitch Cohen, Chair of the UAB & Children’s of AL Department of Pediatrics, said, reading “is a terrific way to overcome some of the physical and emotional obstacles of having a preemie and giving them all the catch up that’s needed.”

Sandra Milstead, a long-time UAB nurse and who is now the family nurse liaison, said families at home can find many engaging things to do with their babies “but when you are in a very small room (at the hospital), you need different things that you can do … a lot of our babies are really sick… they can’t be touched…. they can’t be held every single day necessarily … but one thing that mom can do is read to her baby every single day” said Milstead.