Skip to content

We use necessary cookies that allow our site to work. We also set optional cookies that help us improve our website.

For more information about the types of cookies we use, and to manage your preferences, visit our Cookies policy here.

Cookie settings
Blog post

Meet Helen, James and Sue | Middlesbrough

30 Apr 2024

Unable to display this content.

To view content from third party services you need to allow 3rd party cookies.

Manage cookie settings

Being pregnant can be one of the most beautiful times of someone’s life. As you prepare to meet your baby, it’s easy to get swept up in plans for painting their nursery, or imagining if they’re going to be a scientist, singer, or CEO. But when a baby is born prematurely, parents are rarely able to plan much beyond the moment they’re existing in.

To mark our 30th year as an independent charity, we have gathered 30 stories to celebrate the many ways that life stories have been changed by three decades of the National Literacy Trust. Let's meet Helen and hear her story with the charity starts the moment her baby James was born prematurely at 27 weeks and six days.

Bonding with your premature baby

Helen and newborn baby James spent the first months of his life on the Neonatal Unit of James Cook Hospital, in Middlesbrough. Describing herself as from a very cuddly family, Helen found it distressing not to be able to hold her tiny baby who was taken away for life-giving treatment as soon as he was born.

Helen’s friends and family had rallied around to bring her and James a few bits for their hospital stay, and in that care package was a Peter Rabbit book.

“I remember having it in my pocket and going down to the neonatal unit where I sat down, very emotional, opened the book, but I just didn’t dare read it.”


How Helen met the National Literacy Trust in Middlesbrough

It was against this backdrop that Helen met Allison, Manager for the National Literacy Trust in Middlesbrough, and Sue, a Northern Bliss Co-ordinator, who were working together to improve the situation for families with babies born sick or premature.

Sue had met lots of parents of premature babies who all expressed a similar feeling: “Parents didn’t feel like parents. They felt excluded, observing from a distance, and that they were in the way of the nurses, doctors and machines keeping their babies alive.”

Allison and Sue were looking at ways they could support parents to connect and bond with their babies through reading stories. Sue set up a bookshelf for parents to choose stories to read to their babies, but soon found that it wasn’t enough on its own.

The benefits of reading to your premature baby

“We needed to educate the neonatal staff on the importance of talking to babies, so they could in turn support the parents on the ward. Brain development happens more rapidly in the third trimester of pregnancy, and many of these babies were spending the third majority trimester outside of the womb, so we needed to help however we could.”

Sue, Northern Bliss Co-ordinator

Although some staff were sceptical to begin with, everyone quickly saw the benefits of reading to the babies on the unit, and parents were soon being encouraged to read books, newspapers and magazines to their babies.

Sue explained that giving parents the books and support to read helped many parents develop a structure and routine which also alleviated the stress of their neonatal experience.

Watching your baby is the first step to learning about them – their likes and dislikes, understanding their emotions and so on. Many parents in the neonatal unit are too scared and overwhelmed to take the next step, which is holding, or touching, their baby."

"Reading together gave them a safe middle ground where they felt they could safely help, bond, and build their confidence.“


With support from the National Literacy Trust and the staff on the James Cook Neonatal Unit, Helen’s initial reluctance to read aloud began to fade.

I felt silly at first. Other families were in the room, the nurses all had important jobs to do and here I was sitting with my baby and reading Peter Rabbit. Although, after about three pages, it began to feel like the most normal thing in the world – I enjoyed it and I hoped that James did too.”

The power of reading aloud

As her confidence grew, so did the strength of James’ responses. One morning, when he was five weeks old, he was getting unsettled during a tube feed. Helen began singing to him and he immediately calmed down and relaxed. “That was the first time I knew without doubt that he knew my voice. Among all the other overwhelming sounds and people involved in his very young life, he knew me.”

Boosted by this milestone and the power of reading aloud, Helen continued to read to James, with The Gruffalo, The Lion Who Wanted To Love and Guess How Much I Love You.

I wanted to be with him as much as possible, but I was only able to spend the first eight nights at the hospital. Before I left, we had a story together. I then said goodbye and felt better about leaving him for a little while."

"The books and stories were an important part of my time in James Cook – they were also a godsend for our family.”


Lifelong support from the National Literacy Trust in Middlesbrough

Ten years on, the National Literacy Trust in Middlesbrough still creates packs for parents, with books, activities and information for parents of preemies to create lasting memories, empowering them with the confidence to read aloud to their babies. We know the impact this has for both baby and parent. The process has since become a model for Neonatal Units across the UK, helping parents to bond with their babies through books and songs, within the controlled, clinical, hospital setting.

James is now a strong, healthy, football-mad 8-year-old, and the family has stayed in touch with the National Literacy Trust ever since those early days on the ward, through projects with Middlesbrough FC and local community events.

You can be part of changing life stories

If you’d like to donate, and help us continue our work in Neonatal Units across the UK, just £30 could fund a literacy pack for a family on a neonatal ward.

Donate today

Find out about Early Words Matter

We have an ongoing commitment to changing life stories across the country and supporting parents with babies and young children, not just in a hospital setting but in many other ways. Our Early Words Matter campaign calls on everyone’s support, and businesses have a unique role to play. Members from the National Literacy Trust’s national Business Council, made up of senior leaders from businesses as diverse as KPMG, Greggs, WHSmith, British Land, and Very Group, have added their signatures to endorse our Early Words Matter campaign, and take practical action.

They are committed to putting early language and communication at the heart of a national conversation, as well as supporting their staff and customers with the tools to drive change.

Email us to find out how you and your business can be part of making a difference.

Alternatively, discover ways to support your baby or toddler with their reading at home.


Back to top