Matthew and Chantelle Arnold were overjoyed to learn they were expecting a baby. Adding to their blended family of four, Matthew was particularly excited to be a first-time dad.
But during a routine ultrasound at their local hospital in Mission, BC, results showed an abnormality, and they were then referred to BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre for a follow up. Doctors diagnosed their baby with a rare heart condition that results in oxygen-poor blood to flow from the heart to the rest of the body. Hearing that with early diagnosis and appropriate surgical treatment, most children and adults with the condition can live relatively normal lives, the Arnolds felt they were in safe hands and made plans to deliver their baby at BC Women’s.
Chantelle’s water broke at barely over 28 weeks pregnant and she was immediately taken to BC Women’s. Owen Arnold was born on March 23, 2019, two days later, via an emergency C-section weighing 1,204 grams or just over two pounds. It has been a harrowing two months with ups and downs as Owen is being cared for at BC Women’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Matthew and Chantelle have kept positive and are staying at the Ronald McDonald House to be close to Owen every step of the way.
The Arnolds attend morning rounds to hear the doctors’ daily prognosis and they in turn provide updates on how Owen is doing. Words that really stuck with Matthew was when one of the doctors said: “Owen receives a lot of negative stimulation from us, the poking and prodding, and it’s up to you to make sure he receives positive stimulation to counteract the negative.”
Matthew took this advice to heart, and one of the ways he provides positive stimulation to Baby Owen is through singing and reading. Matthew attended a BabyTalk session held in the NICU for parents to learn the importance of talking, singing and reading to babies. Nearly half of babies born preterm at less than 29 weeks gestation have some delays or developmental problems. Language delay is the most common challenge affecting about one out of three children with developmental issues.
“Research has shown, exposure to more speech supports an increase in premature infant vocalizations,” says Dr. Anne Synnes, medical director of the Neonatal Follow-up program at BC Women’s. “Families can support language and brain development with familiarity through repeated words, stories, sounds, voices and regular physical interactions with their baby.”
Matthew learned that rhymes and repetition help babies develop the building blocks of language and literacy. This reinforced the nonsensical singing he already had a habit of when interacting with Owen, but now decided to make his songs more intentional with rhymes and repetition. Hence, Owen’s Song was borne out of that intent and at the insistence of Aileen, one of the NICU nurses; Matthew put the lyrics on paper so that he can sing his special lullaby every day.
“The singing provides a level of comfort to both Owen and me, and allows us to bond,” says Matthew. “It shows him that he is loved and cared for. The lullaby I wrote for him is a reminder of our time here in the NICU and is also a shout out to the care providers who have been exceptional, making us feel as though we are the only patients on the unit."
Matthew intends to continue to sing and read to Owen indefinitely, and looks forward to embarrassing Owen with his song, as he gets older.
Owen thriving at around two months old
Owens bookshelf in the NICU
BC Women’s NICU launched its BabyTalk program in 2015 in partnership with the Vancouver Public Library. This one-hour session held once a month is designed to provide parents and caregivers with insights on how to talk, read, sing and play with their baby. The goal of BabyTalk activities is to empower parents in their knowledge of early literacy and give them a confidence boost when it comes to caring for their child, which can often feel intimidating or overwhelming in the NICU environment.