Knitted squares help NICU newborns bond with family

When Crystal Brown isn’t holding her twin sons William and Nathaniel Bouey, the premature newborns still connect with their mother through the bonding squares she gently lays by their heads.

The boys, who weighed just four pounds when they were born about two months early on Nov. 22, are doing well, but aren’t ready to leave the hospital. While Crystal has been staying with them in the Neonatal Intensive Care unit (NICU) at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital, she believes the bonding squares are providing added benefits.

“I’ve noticed that when the boys wake up and a bonding square is near them, they start rooting it just like they do when I am holding them,” says Crystal.

The bonding squares are a recent addition to a knitted gift pack volunteers create for families with babies in the NICU at the Grey Nuns Hospital, says Joseen Liaz, a Registered Nurse who works in the NICU. Parents who aren’t able to take their babies home or stay with them can be concerned about bonding. The squares are a way for families to stay connected. 

A square is placed in the incubator or bassinet near the baby, and a parent also wears one so their scent can transfer onto it. The cloths are then swapped so the two can smell each other.

“The mom wears one against her skin to get her scent on it and then switches it off,” says Joseen. “She’ll put the one she just had near her baby’s head so the baby can smell her scent, which promotes bonding. She takes the one that had been near the baby for herself.”

A baby’s sense of smell is almost fully developed by 29 gestational weeks, so premature babies have a good sense of smell. While being in the NICU with cords and tubes can limit how much a mom can hold her baby, the bonding cloths can benefit the mother-baby relationship. The mother’s scent is soothing for babies and helps improve their neurodevelopment. Crying can be reduced and the scent can also trigger the baby’s sucking reflex. The sucking reflex isn’t always readily present in babies born earlier than 35 weeks. Being able to eat on their own is one of the skills preemies need in order to go home.

Crystal believes the bonding squares are also helping to connect the boys with their father, Nick Bouey, even though they’re separated for weeks at a time as he works away from home. Nick takes bonding squares with him when he heads to work and brings them to the boys when he returns. His sons seem very familiar with his scent and touch, says Crystal, and the bonding squares give Nick comfort.

“When he comes to visit them, he’ll sit in the lounger and hold them. Both of them almost immediately fall asleep on him,” says Crystal. “They’re very comforted by him.”

Crystal has noticed that if the boys are fussing and she puts one of Nick’s squares in their beds, they settle right down—just like they do when he holds them.

When Nathaniel and William arrived at the Grey Nuns Hospital’s NICU, they each received a blanket, a toque, two bonding squares and an octopus. The knitted packs are donated by ladies from the Mainstreet Cruisers Crafters.

Nathaniel with his toque, bonding square and octopus

“My mom had crocheted things for babies in the NICU in Peace River, and I wanted to do something like that here in Edmonton,” says Marilyn Schultze, one of the car club’s volunteer knitters. “We were able to find a direct connection to the Grey Nuns NICU and we were asked to crochet the octopuses.”

Fellow member Marilyn Huff suggested it would be nice to create packs—sets with pieces that match.

“The packs are a nice keepsake for families, especially when being in the NICU is an unfamiliar environment,” says Joseen. “Putting things like this in the cribs helps normalize things a bit more. It makes parents happy.”

The Crafters weren’t sure whether the younger generation would like knitted things, but they are popular, says Joseen. 

For Crystal the gift was an unexpected kindness during a stressful time.

“It was a really pleasant surprise and brought tears to my eyes,” says Crystal. “The octopuses grabbed my attention first because I’d seen them online. I had heard about the patches, bonding squares, so I was very eager to go for it. What the ladies knitted is beautiful.”

And the bonding squares won’t be tucked away after the boys return home. Nick plans to continue using them to continue bonding while he’s away at work.

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