Walk into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center in Manassas, Virginia, and you’ll likely see babies staring intently at the tops of their incubators. What are they looking at? Why, pages from their very first books, of course!
Staff nurse Sherry Roloff came up with the idea after finding a black-and-white board book called “Hello, Animals!” The book, which had been donated by the hospital’s auxiliary as part of its program to give a book to every newborn, features 10 animals in high-contrast black and white – perfect for stimulating young minds.
“I started taping the pictures in the incubators or open sides of the cribs so the babies could look at them,” said Roloff, who has worked in the NICU for 16 years. “And the babies absolutely loved them.”
Critical visual stimulation
Although newborn babies aren’t colorblind, their vision is generally blurry for the first six months as their retinas develop. High-contrast colors, such as black and white, are easier for them to see, especially when placed close to their faces – about eight to 12 inches away. And visual stimulation is critical to proper retina, optic nerve and brain development.
“NICU babies spend a lot of time in their incubators,” Roloff said. “And as they grow older, they’re alert for longer periods of time. The pictures engage them while they’re awake, helping them to grow and develop the visual parts of their brains. And as they see the pictures more often, they start to reach for them. This, in turn, helps encourage physical activity and hand-eye coordination, which are important skills for any growing baby.”
Penny Winstel, nurse manager of the hospital’s women’s and children’s unit, said she was amazed the first time she saw the incubator additions and how actively they captured the babies’ attention.
“It is really remarkable to watch the babies as they look at the pictures,” Winstel said. “They provide the perfect stimulation for our infants and a wonderful first introduction to reading.”
Visual play at home
Until your baby is 6 months old, you can help spur brain development by providing stimulating visual play, including:
- Surround baby’s bed with stripes. Dark and light stripes are perfect to provide visual stimulation on sheets, blankets, crib bumpers, pillowcases and wallpaper.
- Keep stripes in baby’s play area, including black-and-white striped books, pictures or toys. Remember to keep toys eight to 12 inches from baby’s face so they can get a good look.
- Resist pastels, which are as good as blindfolds to young infants. Reach for black, white and red mobiles, rattles, teddy bears and other toys.
- Dress the part. Wear contrasting stripes and patterns to aid your infant’s gaze.
- Give it time. It takes many babies time to fix their eyes. Leave the object within your baby’s view for at least 30 seconds. Baby’s fixation also will increase with time. At first, infants’ attention span varies from four to 10 seconds. The repeated sight of high-contrast objects can increase your baby’s fixation time to spur learning and cortex growth in the brain.