The weight of these absences is often on Shona Christy’s mind. She treks through the halls of the ProMedica Russell J. Ebeid Children’s Hospital NICU—where sometimes all 72 of its beds are full with newborns from around northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan—carefully and consciously. As a child life specialist, she knows parents are acutely feeling the limitations on their ability to touch, care, and feed. That is why she is thankful when she sees the small pile of books appear on the windowsills of their rooms.
Those books are a sign the parents have spent time with a librarian, who has given them the one remaining avenue to bond with and nurture their babies: their voice.
This partnership between the Toledo Lucas County Public Library’s Ready to Read program and the Ebeid Children’s NICU parent group, started several years ago, teaches parents the importance of reading to their newborn babies and provides them the tools—free books and guidance—without asking them to leave the hospital. It is the restoration of a parenting act—one that feels constructive and strengthening—through simply reading a story.
“Parents are often afraid. Their babies are so little and so fragile and they don’t want to do the wrong thing,” Christy said. “Having someone say this is not only good for your baby, we encourage you to do it and here are the tools to do it, it’s just one less thing that parents have to worry about and one thing they can look forward to.”
The Library’s Ready to Read specialists provide free books and guidance to help parents and caregivers learn how important it is to talk, read, sing, write, and play with children from birth.
The impact of reading books to babies was not always understood.
Though storytimes have long been a part of the Library’s history, according to the Library’s Youth Services Coordinator Nancy Eames, they were at first geared toward children who were school age. The first storytime sessions she conducted, as a new librarian in the late 1980s, didn’t include babies in the audience.
Understandings of literacy have evolved and show that to help children effectively build a vocabulary that will support them as readers, it’s important to read to them from the very beginning of their lives.
“The storytimes we did back in the late ‘80s look nothing like storytime today,” Eames said. Now, rather than encourage strict silence, librarians ask questions and take the story apart with their audience, asking them to make predictions. Parents are encouraged to stay in the room. And most importantly, storytime and early literacy tools are taken out into the community, to health departments, doctor’s waiting rooms, family courts, the NICU, and other places where librarians can serve families where they are.
This work is needed to address literacy challenges in Lucas County—about two thirds of children in the area are not ready for kindergarten, according to Ohio’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment—a significant portion of the community’s kids. This fact spurred the creation of the Library’s Ready to Read program in 2014, originally funded by the Library Legacy Foundation and now supported by the Library’s taxpayer-funded budget. (Some support from an endowment remains, used to purchase books for reading kits that are offered to families for free.)
The program taught children’s librarians to train families, teaching them the importance of talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing with children with intentionality. Together, these activities are the building blocks that develop a child’s context and vocabulary.