Pilot program at Minnesota hospitals works to bridge language gaps starting at infancy

For some time, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended reading to babies from infancy. But when babies aren't healthy enough to immediately go home from the hospital, reading and hearing their native languages becomes more challenging.

Inside the Hennepin Healthcare NICU, there's a focus on what's called "language nutrition" at two Minnesota hospitals. Between the hums of medical equipment and almost constant monitor beeps, Lizzie Hendricks is volunteering her time and soft voice to read in Spanish to infants' brains.

"Hearing their language, they tend to be more relaxed," said Hendricks.

Matteo is 2 months old with breathing troubles. His parents are currently working out of state. Now, his tiny ears are part of a pilot program through Reach Out and Read, bringing books in 16 different languages into NICUs at Hennepin Healthcare and at Masonic Children's Hospital.

"NICU babies are already starting off on a language deficit because they are missing those months of language from when they are inside," said Kolleen Amon, a NICU nurse practitioner. "Anything we can do to bridge that gap is only going to improve their outcomes."

(FOX 9)

"We encourage talking, singing, with reading they find that," Amon adds. "Babies that are read to have two and half times language exposure. They have less cognitive development and language expression problems."

Over the past 12 months of this pilot program, Hennepin Healthcare has welcomed medical students, retirees, and anyone bilingual willing to take part in background checks and training. Four hundred books have gone home with families.

A point of pride because, while the babies are taking up residence are always changing, about 50 percent of the infants in their care are from non-English speaking parents.

For Hendricks, this is also very personal. She's exploring going into the medical field, in large part because 17 years ago, she was a NICU baby herself.

"I was 2 ½ months early, I was 3 pounds, 9 ounces and so it’s a miracle I’m even here," said Hendricks.

Now she's thankful for a chapter in life to help other NICU babies improve theirs.

"It gets pretty emotional," said Hendricks. "Because it’s like wow... I was here too. So that’s why I want to give back and help them."