The first time I had to leave my son alone in the NICU, it almost tore my heart out. I delayed our departure as long as I possibly could, finding reasons why we couldn’t leave yet. One more lullaby, one more story, one more kiss. I sat in that rocking chair beside him, late into the night, stifling yawns and counting the hours until I knew we would be back.
I walked out of the NICU, my vision blurred from tears, and felt an invisible force pulling me back in. It was as though he and I were tied together and with each step the rope tightened. I avoided eye contact with everyone through the hospital corridors, down the elevator and into the parking garage. I felt as though if my eyes met theirs they would know that just over a week into it, I had already failed as a mother.
I felt like a failure each and every night that I left my son alone in a hospital room. We often drove home in silence. My mind raced with worry. I wondered if he was cold, or crying, or if he felt abandoned because his mother just walked away and left him there. Would he be left with scars because he was left alone in an open incubator night after night?
One morning, I came into his room to find him being rocked by his head nurse. It made me smile to know that he wasn’t alone. That he was feeling human touch and warmth even if it wasn’t mine. As we said our good mornings and got caught up on the overnight activity, the nurse handed me what looked like a large bean bag.
She asked me to pop the bean bag, which almost looked like a two fingered hand, under my shirt while I held him during the day, explaining that it would take on my scent. At night, once I left, they would place it over top of him and the weight of it would make him feel safe and act as my hand on his body, my smell making him feel me there.
It’s very similar to The Zaky, an invention created by a former NICU mom who wanted to provide her baby with the feeling of being held when she couldn’t be there to hold him. They are soft weighted gloves that are being used in NICU’s across the United States. It has been proven that babies do better when they are touched. Kangaroo care is promoted in every NICU. Touch can help reduce pain, regulate breathing and temperature and has been shown to reduce hospital time of NICU babies. The problem is that some parents can’t be there 24 hours a day. That is where the Zaky can have such a huge impact for both baby and mother.
Each and every morning after I was given my gift, I would walk into the NICU and see my son wrapped up tightly in his blanket, placed strategically on his side with his beanbag hand placed warmly over his body. He looked so peaceful and slept so soundly. It eased my guilt, if only slightly, that although I couldn’t be with him overnight, he had some warmth and my scent kept him company. My hope is that he felt me with him, that he didn’t feel abandoned, that he knew even though I couldn’t be there with him in person, my heart and soul never left his side.