"Will you knit something for me that's as adorable as I am?"
There aren't really rules, per se, for knitting for the NICU but there are certain things that need to be done in specific ways. As I explain them, they'll make perfect sense. I'll go through the areas individually, but in general, keep my knitting-for-the-NICU mantra always in mind: SOFT and EASILY WASHED. Preemie babies have premature organs, including skin, which makes only the softest of soft fabrics and yarns suitable for their tender skin and all the items will be washed repeatedly in very hot water and dried in a very hot dryer to kill germs.
Projects to Knit (or crochet):
NICU's are always in need of hats, socks, booties, hand mitts, blankets, and cocoons/cuddlers/sleep sacks. Some NICU's allow handmade toys in the cribs and some don't but even the NICU's who don't will usually gladly take hand-made teddy bears or other soft toys to give out to our babies' siblings, for Pediatric kids, or to comfort children in the ER.
All babies' skin is delicate but in the NICU that is true times a hundred-fold. The younger the baby the more thin, delicate, and vulnerable their skin. With the very tiniest little Littles, there are places where their is skin is only a few cells deep, so only the softest, most gentle, non-allergenic fibers can be used. Stay away from animal fibers with the exception of alpaca, which is non-allergenic due to the absense of lannolin on the hair follicales. The best yarns for Preemies are spun from cotton, bamboo, acrylic, and alpaca.
All sizes of yarn can be used; babies aren't just about baby yarn. There are two purposes for hats in NICU: keeping body warmth in and keeping noise out. Premature babies are not ready for stimulation of any kind yet, whether it's light, sound, or touch. Their development has not had time to progress that far. That's why NICU's are always dark, quiet, and warm. Noise and light that seems tolerable to us can actually damage the fragile still-growing cilia in their ears and rods/cones of their eyes. Because premature babies also lack the body fat yet to maintaint heir own body heat, we must supplement them with heated environment in their isolettes and with hats. Baby yarn is great, but worsted weight and bulky yarns can be appropriate and helpful too, as well as ear flaps (without any long ties that could present a choking hazard).
Because premature fingers and toes are so tiny with such fragile skin and capillary beds, only tightly woven knit or crochet pattern textures should be used. As beautiful as lacy patterns are for older babies, those same hole-y creations can trap tiny fingers and toes, cutting off circulation, possibly irreversibly. To imagine the smallest of the NICU patients' fingers, look at the fingernail on your index finger. Now imagine a tiny hand, with all four fingers spanning only the width of your fingernail, and only barely or almost able to encircle your finger with their hand. That's how tiny those fingers are.
Cocoons, cuddlers, and sleep sacks are very popular, and can be very useful in the NICU as long as we knitters keep in mind that they need to be created with SIDS recommendations. Keep the length to no more than 11" for 1-3lb babies, 14" for 3-5lb babies, 15" for 5-7lb babies, 17" for 7-9lb babies, and without fold down flaps around the face or hoods. This will keep any fabric from accidentally covering the baby's face.
There are many wonderful websites besides this one who post free patterns sized for preemies:
Although there are lots of pattern books for babies, there are few books available sized specifically for premature babies, which is why I chose to write one:
It can be found or special ordered at Michael's, Hobby Lobby, or JoAnn's Fabrics, or mail ordered directly from the publisher: Leisure Arts.
There are so links in the upper left hand of the blog page.
Historically, pasted colors only have been used for babies, particularly premature babies. I disagree on principle and from my own personal experience. Babies are people too and come in all sizes, personalities, and skin colors. Whether they come out to play at 23 weeks or 40 weeks they immediately have their own little personalities on display for all to admire. Some baby girls are quietly demure in a way that makes us reach for pink girly girl hats, some baby boys are already little wild men who wear deep colors perfectly. One of my favorite Christmas hats I've ever knitted was for a deeply- caramel-colored skinned girl who, I swear, SPARKLED in a bright, gem-toned purple and aqua striped Santa hat. Some of the most popular hats we knit are for the daddy's: camo. Camo of every hue for both boys and girls. Pastels are great in the NICU but deeper, richer colors and variegated yarns are just as wonderful.
The only color I might caution against is yellow for micro-preemies (23-26 weeks). Because their organs are not fully developed, and skin is the biggest organ of the body, our littlest Littles' skin can be a little dusky at birth and the color yellow isn't flattering. I'm not saying don't use yellow at all, but for micro-preemies it works better as an accent color as part of a pattern rather than as the only color used. Micro-preemie-sized all yellow hats, mitts, or booties are usually quietly set aside.
One of the great things about embellishments on hats for preemies vs toddlers, is that preemies don't chew on buttons, so within reason, as long as all embellishments are triple super duper sewed on tightly, they can be used on NICU hats. Try to keep anything sewn on to the front of the hat and away from the sides and back of the head so the baby won't be laying on any kind of applique, silk flower, etc. And the same goes for bulky seams. Try to stay away from bulky seams that the baby might lay on. Again, it goes back to their tender skin.
With that said, I use a wide variety of items sparingly to decorate hats and booties: buttons, google eyes, ribbons, silk flowers, appliques, fabric paints, pom-poms, etc. Below are a selection of photos showing hats made by my friends and I over the years:
For larger versions, click on the pics.
Whew! And after all that work, know what my very favorite part is? Seeing our little Littles in those hats and then sending them home with parents as souvenirs of their time spent with us in the NICU.