I have this pregnant friend who posts weekly bump photos on Facebook. She always gives a reference from the produce department to help us track the size of her growing baby. “My baby is the size of a jicama,” she shared one week. “My baby is the size of a cantaloupe,” she wrote another.
It’s a fun way to track a baby’s growth and cheer the expectant mom to the finish line, right? But, sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes babies are born before they’re truly ready.
Kristin Moan knows all about this. When her twins were born at just 23 weeks gestation, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) staff suggested they place a stuffed toy alongside them the incubator to give friends and family a visual sense of the girls’ growth. You know … if you take a picture of your child next to the same teddy bear, week after week, this gives you an easy-to-understand frame of reference on the baby’s progress.
If someone you know has given birth to a preemie or micro-preemie (micro-preemies are babies born before 26 weeks gestation), you know these children are tiny fighters. You also know that the new parents first weeks and months as new parents are stressful, scary, and probably not like they planned it to be.
If someone you know has given birth to a preemie or a micro-preemie, you won’t meet the new baby for weeks or maybe even months. But you’ll cheer these impossibly small babies on through pictures and celebrate every ounce gained.
Dylan and Hayden weighed in at just 1 lb., 3 oz. and 1 lb., 7 oz., respectively when they first came into the world. But instead of buying a stuffed animal to track the girls’ growth, their dad Eric brought two Mrs. Potato Head toys into the NICU.
“Eric bought them because they could be easily sanitized and wiped down,” shares Moan. “The nurses LOVED this.”
(NICU babies are extra susceptible to infection and the Mrs. Potato Head toys had less risk than a stuffed animal.)
This picture of Dylan gives you a visual of just how tiny she was:
The Moans spent the next four months snapping pictures of their girls alongside the Mrs. Potato Heads and were able to give their family and friends a visual of the girls’ growth during all 119 days of their stay in the NICU.
Today, Dylan and Hayden are thriving (and absolutely adorable) 5-year-olds. But while their NICU stay is now just a memory for their mom, it has never left her mind. Looking for a way to support other NICU families, Moan has since launched “The Potato Head Project” — a nonprofit that provides a new, in-the-box Mr. or Mrs. Potato head toy to the family of a preemie.
“I was driving in the car one day with my Mom and I spouted ‘What about THE POTATO HEAD PROJECT?'” explains Moan, when we asked her how it all got started. “And, so it began officially,” she continues. “I started a Facebook page, tracked down an amazing lawyer and we got to work! We had already been sending packages to people, so we wanted it to be official.”
But it’s so much more than just a gift for others. It’s community.
“The Potato Head Project exists because it gives you hope,” explains Moan. “Hope when you have no idea what is going on and no idea where to turn. It gives you something to look forward to, to connect people to (without them having to endure the NICU themselves), it gives you something to hold on tight to because the truth of the matter is, in the NICU hope is all you have.”
These simple toys provide support system for NICU families in a way that we probably don’t fully grasp if we haven’t walked in those shoes. But it goes far beyond just being a kind gesture.
“Mr. Potato Head gave us hope when sometimes things felt very scary,” writes Chelsie, mom to former NICU resident Henry. “A simple hope that our baby boy would grow to be bigger than this toy that towered over him when they first met. I guess Mr. P is a symbol of all that is wrapped up into a parent’s desire to see their little baby grow big and strong and live a happy life. Amazing how one little plastic toy can mean so much.”
“Micro-preemies are amazing and true miracles by every definition,” Moan tells Babble. “For a baby to have to start fighting the minute they are delivered is true perseverance. They show us that anything is indeed possible, that even when the worst is assumed there is hope. My girls were given very slim odds. The day we took them home they told us they never thought we would. We did.”
It’s in that spirit that The Potato Head Project hopes to pay it forward, by giving hope and inspiration — as well as a sense of “I’ve been where you are” — to other families, just like hers.
Babies and new life are always something to be celebrated, but getting a peek into the NICU world gives all of us an extra sense of admiration for these strong families … and maybe just a little more thankfulness for the good things in our own lives.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t know how incredibly blessed and lucky we are,” says Moan.
To date, The Potato Head Project has reached over 1,000 families in 48 states, including Alaska and Hawaii.