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Sleep Like a Baby 

Quilts recreate the womb for newborns in the neonatal ward

Quilts are among the most comforting of household items, especially in the winter months, when the urge to stay in bed for a few extra moments is the most powerful. They are a traditional baby gift providing warmth and security early on. But quilts never seem to lose the feeling of home. Well into adulthood, they retain their nurturing qualities as easily as they do body heat.

The Triangle is home to hundreds of quilters, professional and amateur, who work in a variety of traditions--from hand-pieced, hand-quilted works to elaborately painted art quilts. The two largest area guilds, Raleigh's Capital Quilters and the Durham/Orange County Quilters' Guild, boast a combined membership of more than 450 people, who range in age from 12 to 80 and who work in every style and milieu. A tradition of these guilds--in addition to monthly meetings, workshops and occasional exhibitions--is donating small quilts to area hospitals and nonprofits for children who most need an extra boost to their feelings of security.

For the last several years, members of both guilds have taken on the task of donating baby quilts to newborns in the neonatal intensive care units of several hospitals, including UNC, Wake Medical Center and Rex Hospital. Infants brought into intensive care are more than likely born pre-term and face a host of medical challenges. The UNC Hospitals unit, which admits more than 800 newborns per year, gives quilts to each newly admitted infant. "We try to welcome them into the unit with a quilt that they can have during their stay and then take home with them," says Vicki Childers, a nurse education clinician at UNC and member of the Durham/Orange Quilters' Guild who manages the donations. She sees first-hand the impression that the quilts make on the families that find themselves at the hospital. "It is an extremely stressful time for parents and for newborns. The quilts have a huge impact psychologically," says Childers.

Average stays last between 11 and 13 days in the unit, which may treat up to 48 newborns at any given time. Because many of the infants are born pre-term, some as early as 24 weeks, their environment is an important aspect of the treatment they receive. Nurses and staff attempt to recreate conditions in the womb by making things as quiet and dimly lit as possible, using the quilts to cover infant isolettes, providing a dark environment for light-sensitive newborns, and using quilts as blankets for infants born full-term. Though the quilts are a benefit to the babies, the psychological effects may be most significant for parents. Childers says that they are successful in easing stress, by creating the feeling of a home away from home for newborns who literally need to hibernate. "The quilts do help from a developmental standpoint, a warm and cozy standpoint and a welcoming standpoint," says Childers.

Julie Foley, a quilter who formerly coordinated the Raleigh group's donations, began volunteering at UNC after experiencing the neonatal unit first hand, as a parent. She gave birth 10 weeks early to a 1 pound, 3 ounce daughter, who spent three-and-a-half months there. Foley says that the brightly colored quilts have a psychological effect that is a huge lift to parents of sick newborns. "They help brighten the place up, and they mean different things to each family. They are also meaningful to the families of newborns that don't survive. The quilt is something that they can take away with them," Foley says.

For area quilters, donating quilts is one more opportunity to practice and share their craft. Both Hope Brown, president of the Durham/Orange County Quilters' Guild, and Missy Mangum, president of the Capital Quilters, say that outreach is a rewarding part of their mission. Last year the Capital Quilters' Guild gave more than 240 quilts of varying sizes and patterns to local groups. Because of the small size of the neonatal quilts they are more quickly pieced together, allowing members to produce more of them. Peggy Littrell, the current coordinator for the Raleigh group, says that sizes range from 18 by 24 inches, what is known as a "fat quarter" in quilting circles, to 36 by 45 inches--still quite a bit smaller than the average crib size quilt, which runs about 45 by 60 inches.

For Triangle quilters, the quilts-for-kids program is a labor of love, giving more reasons to get together and express their craft. It seems that the process offers as much comfort as the product. And as for the product, Littrell puts it simply: "Sometimes it's just nice to have something to wrap up in." EndBlock

  • Quilts recreate the womb for newborns in the neonatal ward

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