Heart-shaped fabric with scent of moms and dads helps soothe NICU babies
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 recently 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 mom or dad. The fabric is then placed near or under the baby’s head, the scent of the parent soothing the newborns 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 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, Andy Crutchfield, 26. who live in Wilmington, Illinois, 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 by 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 EVERYONE
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 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 halfdollar.
“You could see every vein in their bodies,” Brooke said.
Even when mom and dad were able to 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.”
An 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 Quebec in Trois-rivieres. “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 with her scent near her son Xavier while she and her husband, Andy Crutchfield, visit twins Kai and Xavier at Rush Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit in Chicago.
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