Voicing new bonds

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Two mothers whose newborns spent time in intensive care start children’s library


  • Julie Rudolph and her son, Nathan, left, and Gabrielle Felman and her daughter, Marin.

When Gabrielle Felman’s daughter, Marin, was born 10 weeks early, she only weighed 2 pounds, 8 ounces. Marin was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at Lenox Hill Hospital. Felman said she felt scared and helpless as she peered into the domed isolette that held her child. The tiny breathing tube inserted into Marin’s nose and the hard, clear walls of the beeping plastic universe punctuated Felman’s sense of anxiety. The whole environment felt abnormal.

Julie Rudolph, a close friend of Felman’s, had a similar experience. Her son, Nathan, was also a pre-term baby who spent the first seven weeks of his life in the same neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Two years have gone by and Marin and Nathan are now happy, healthy and adorable toddlers. But the mothers haven’t forgotten the emotional difficulty of having a sick child. Felman said they’re determined “to pay it forward.”

“We were thinking of other ways to support parents, what do parents from the NICU really need? I think we were both able to have a realistic concrete understanding of what parents really need. Because we are both early childhood educators also,” she continued.

In February, Felman and Rudolph began a project to help NICU parents forge bonds with their infants. They created the Lenox Hill NICU Book Drive with the help of hospital nursing staff, social workers and donors,

The library on wheels is actually a donation-based book cart with an array of colorful children’s books. The cart is presented to every parent who has a child in the NICU. Parents choose one or two books and are encouraged to read them to their newborns. One of Felman’s and Rudolph’s objectives is to promote “normalcy in an abnormal environment.”

“I read a lot to Marin because, you’re there all day, it’s very emotional, and there is only so much you can talk about. It feels abnormal,” Felman said. “So, I thought, ‘What would I be doing with her if she were home?’ I would be singing to her and I’d be reading to her. So, I just started bringing some of my favorite books for babies and reading to her.”

Rudolph’s instinct was much the same. “You sit there, and you want in some way to connect to your baby. A lot of my friends gave me books in the beginning and said, ‘oh, this is to read to him.’ It was a very special way to connect. After his bottle or before he went to bed, I would read to him. It was just really special bonding,” she said.

Studies have shown that a mother’s voice is key to the development of a secure infant-mother attachment. But there are also other benefits associated with reading to infants. In May, the American Academy of Pediatrics published research showing that “reading books with a child beginning in early infancy can boost vocabulary and reading skills four years later, before the start of elementary school.”

When Felman and Rudolph launched the book drive, they solicited family and friends for book donations. “These books need to be new (hospital cleanliness standards!),” read the missive.

“We got 500 books or so. It was incredible,” Felman said.

Rudolph and Felman then set up the library, and introduced it to parents whose infants were in the NICU. A social media campaign pulled in yet more books.

The effort was initially conceptualized as a kind of renting library. It was ultimately decided that parents should be able to keep the books, and so far Felman and Rudolph have already given away more than 100.

“We are also hoping that NICU graduates will give back. A little bit of a pay it forward,” Felman said. “It’s such an easy ask. Children’s books are inexpensive and easy to get.”

Both Marin and Nathan are avid readers, their mothers said. Rudolph thinks the children’s fondness for reading stems from their early exposure to books.

“Yeah, that’s how it started and it’s taken off. We really have an influx of books and we’d like to be able to help other hospitals,” Felman said. “This should be for all babies.”

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