Heart-shaped cloths car­ry­ing scent of moms and dads help soothe NICU ba­bies, pro­mote bond­ing

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAND - By Angie Leven­tis Lour­gos eleven­[email protected]­ Twit­ter @ang­ie_leven­tis

First the new mother feared for the sur­vival and long-term health of her twin boys, born pre­car­i­ously early and taken straight to the neona­tal in­ten­sive care unit be­fore she could hold them.

Then came a lin­ger­ing worry the ba­bies wouldn’t know her as their mother.

“Some­times I won­der if they think the nurses are their moms or if they know who we are,” said Brooke Crutch­field, whose sons have spent the past eight weeks in the NICU at Rush Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

Yet Crutch­field takes com­fort in a small piece of fab­ric she leaves be­hind in each of their cribs af­ter vis­it­ing — a 6-inch hand­made cot­ton heart that car­ries her scent so the ba­bies can sense her pres­ence even when she has to be away from their bed­side.

The cloth hearts were given to all NICU fam­i­lies ear­lier this month as part of a new pro­gram at Rush to help strengthen the bond be­tween par­ents and their preemies dur­ing th­ese of­ten-tu­mul­tuous hos­pi­tal stays.

The par­ents take the hearts home and wear them against their skin, the soft ma­te­rial ab­sorb­ing the unique smell of the mom or dad.

The fab­ric is then placed near or un­der the baby’s head, the scent of the par­ent sooth­ing the new­borns even af­ter mom and dad re­turn home.

“The sense of smell is one of the ear­li­est senses they de­velop,” said Amy Levin, a NICU nurse at Rush. “There’s in­cred­i­ble re­search that’s been pub­lished that this can help in­crease that bond.”

Ol­fac­tory re­cep­tors de­velop in the first trimester, and stud­ies have shown new­borns can rec­og­nize their mother’s nat­u­ral scent from breath­ing and swal­low­ing her am­ni­otic fluid, which ab­sorbs odor­ants from the ma­ter­nal diet, in utero, Levin said.

She added that the sense of smell is pro­cessed in the part of the brain that con­trols mem­ory, and there’s ev­i­dence th­ese fa­mil­iar scents strengthen the ties be­tween baby and par­ent.

The hearts are par­tic­u­larly grat­i­fy­ing to Brooke Crutch­field, 27, and her hus­band, 26-year-old Andy Crutch­field, who live in Wilmington, some 60 miles south­west of the hos­pi­tal.

Both are back at work and can only travel to see their sons Xavier and Kai about four times a week, lim­ited to brief pe­ri­ods on week­nights due to the far drive.

Dur­ing vis­its, the par­ents each bring a heart laced with their in­di­vid­ual scent for one of the boys, switch­ing off ev­ery trip so both in­fants will rec­og­nize mom and dad.

“We leave, but they still have our scent,” Brooke said. “So it’s like they’re al­ways kind of with us.”

Com­fort for mom, dad, ba­bies

At 25 weeks preg­nant, Brooke felt her con­trac­tions growing alarm­ingly stronger and more fre­quent.

When her hus­band timed them at roughly three to four min­utes apart, they went to a lo­cal hos­pi­tal in the mid­dle of the night and were soon trans­ported by am­bu­lance to Rush, where physi­cians were able to stave off de­liv­ery.

Brooke lived at the hos­pi­tal for sev­eral weeks, her belly hooked up to fe­tal mon­i­tors. A de­cel­er­a­tion in the heart rate of ei­ther twin would send a flurry of nurses to her room.

On Sept. 24, she gave birth to the boys af­ter 28 weeks and four days in the womb.

Xavier weighed 2 pounds and 7 ounces. Kai weighed 2 pounds and 9 ounces. Andy fol­lowed them to the NICU, but Brooke was wheeled back to her room to re­cu­per­ate.

She de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence as an emo­tional roller coaster. While she’s grate­ful her ba­bies re­ceived the best round-the­clock med­i­cal care pos­si­ble, the sep­a­ra­tion could of­ten be ag­o­niz­ing.

Af­ter car­ry­ing them inside her for months — lis­ten­ing to to the rhythm of their beat­ing hearts all day and night through the mon­i­tors, chron­i­cling ev­ery kick and flut­ter and con­trac­tion — re­turn­ing home to an empty nurs­ery was painful.

“It’s kind of like you get robbed of ev­ery­thing,” she said. “You get robbed of hav­ing that nor­mal preg­nancy with ba­bies that come home with you right away. You get robbed of that mother feel­ing where you get to hold your baby when­ever you want.”

At first, she and her hus­band would just look at them through the in­cu­ba­tors, their tiny pro­files nearly cov­ered by masks from con­tin­u­ous pos­i­tive air­way pres­sure ma­chines. Then the par­ents could reach in and touch the del­i­cate flesh of their new­borns, whose lit­tle inky foot­prints were each smaller than the cir­cum­fer­ence of a half-dol­lar.

“You could see ev­ery vein in their bod­ies,” Brooke said.

Even when the mom and dad were able hold the twins, they were so frag­ile the prospect was a bit in­tim­i­dat­ing.

“We were both kind of shy­ing away,” Andy said. “They’re so small, you don’t want to do any­thing to hurt them.”

He re­called fi­nally cud­dling Kai against his naked chest, the fa­ther’s body heat warm­ing his son un­der a re­ceiv­ing blan­ket.

“It was all kind of sur­real,” he said. “You re­al­ize what you’re do­ing and it’s pretty awe­some.”

A NICU nurse for more than 30 years, Levin has seen a spec­trum of sce­nar­ios there for both par­ents and ba­bies. Some­times moth­ers are hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter birth and can’t be in the same room as their new­borns; some­times in­fants need surgery and aren’t well enough to be held by their par­ents. There are par­ents who live far away or have other chil­dren to care for.

With mul­ti­ples, one twin or triplet could be well enough to go home while a sib­ling or two might have to re­main longer.

“You’re bal­anc­ing that you’re happy that one gets to come home, but you’re also sad that the other one has to stay,” she said. “That can pro­vide com­fort to mom as well, know­ing that I am go­ing home with the one twin but the other will still have my smell.”

The cloth hearts — which are sewn and do­nated by nurs­ing stu­dents, a lo­cal quilt­ing group and the mother of a Rush physi­cian — are also used in re­verse. Af­ter some time with the in­fant, the fab­ric be­comes in­fused with the scent of the baby and is sent home to com­fort the par­ents.

A study pub­lished in Fron­tiers in Psy­chol­ogy in 2013 found the scent of new­borns on cloth­ing worn by the in­fants ac­ti­vated re­ward cen­ters in the brains of new moth­ers as well as women who had not given birth.

“We in­ter­preted our re­sults as (an) in­di­ca­tion that body odors play an im­por­tant role in the form­ing of a bond be­tween moth­ers and new­borns,” said study coau­thor Jo­hannes Fras­nelli, a pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of anatomy at the Univer­sity of Québec in Trois-Rivières. “In ad­di­tion to this, we know that odors ... can evoke very vivid and present mem­o­ries.”

‘We feel like we’re their par­ents’

The Crutch­fields are now in­ti­mately in­volved in the care of their ba­bies, their fin­gers ex­pertly weav­ing in and out of tub­ing and wires to change a tiny di­a­per or stroke a sleepy head on a re­cent night at the NICU.

The mother and fa­ther hope to bring the twins — now al­most 6 pounds each — home mid-De­cem­ber, around the time of their orig­i­nal due date.

“We’re ac­tu­ally bond­ing with them, to where we feel like we’re their par­ents,” Brooke said, adding that the ba­bies have seemed less fussy since the scent cloths were in­tro­duced.

Of the 43 ba­bies in the NICU at Rush, roughly 90 to 95 per­cent have a scent cloth in their crib or in­cu­ba­tor, ac­cord­ing to staff.

Once a baby is dis­charged, the cloths are kept by the fam­i­lies.

Levin said par­ents can put them in a scrap­book or con­tinue us­ing them when mom and dad re­turn to work.

Af­ter three decades in the NICU, she said she’s come to see the start of life very dif­fer­ently than most of so­ci­ety, where an un­event­ful preg­nancy and healthy, full-term baby are of­ten ex­pected — and some­times taken for granted.

“The mir­a­cle is ac­tu­ally hav­ing a baby that is fine, be­cause so many things can go wrong,” she said. “You can have the health­i­est preg­nancy there is and the tini­est thing can go wrong and it can be very dif­fer­ent. … Giv­ing birth to a healthy baby is a mir­a­cle.”


Brooke Crutch­field holds a cloth heart car­ry­ing her scent above her son Xavier while vis­it­ing her twin boys at Rush Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

Andy Crutch­field wraps a blan­ket around his son Kai while he and his wife, Brooke, visit their chil­dren in the neona­tal in­ten­sive care unit.

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