There were countless reasons why being in the NICU with my premature twins was heartbreaking beyond belief, but one of the things that still gets me like a punch in the gut is remembering all the time we spent apart. I would visit every day, faithfully carrying with me a cooler of pumped breastmilk, and sit and hold each of my fragile babies for as long as I possibly could, knowing it was the best thing I could do to help them. But I couldn’t sleep at the hospital with them — not every day for four months, anyway — so every evening, I packed my things back up and left them in the care of nurses who I hoped would take care of them and love them the way they deserved.
The memory still stings, and unfortunately, it’s something that far too many parents know all too well, as preemies inevitably have to spend more time than anyone wants them to be alone, and un-held. It was something that Dr. Yamile Jackson understood first-hand, too, when her own son, Zachary, was born premature in 2001. Wanting to find a way to provide her son with the benefits of being held when no one was there to do it in person, the engineer invented The Zaky, a pair of soft weighted gloves that could be wrapped around premature infants, and designed to mimic parents’ own hands. The Zaky provides warmth, support, touch, and containment to tiny infants to help with development, and if worn by a parent before wrapping around the child, The Zaky can help provide the child with the comforting scent of a loved one, too.
The therapeutic value of touch has been well-studied and is an important part of NICU care. According to the preemie parent support organization Hand To Hold, skin-to-skin “kangaroo care” can help regulate premature infants’ heart rates, temperature, and breathing. It can also reduce pain, regulate sleeping patterns, improve feeding and growth, lessen the risk of infection, and in general, lead to a preemie going home sooner.
But not all parents can be there to provide this kind of touch as much as they’d like — some especially-small preemies can end up in hospitals hours away from their parents’ homes, and even when parents are able to visit daily, they are often unable to stay 24/7. With The Zaky, Jackson found a way to allow all babies to receive the benefits of touch and scent. It may not be as good as being held by their mom, but it’s a pretty brilliant alternative.
Speaking about the benefits of The Zaky in the NICU environment, University of Kentucky neonatologist Dr. Lori Shook told The Huffington Post:
“A lot of our tiny babies need to be positioned so that they don’t get frog legs, flat heads and things like that. We can use [The Zaky] to position them into a nice, neutral position.”
“One of the things that’s really difficult for a baby in the NICU is to get sleep … A lot of the small ones frequently will stop breathing because they are neurologically not mature. But with a Zaky, particularly one that the mother has scented, those spells will decrease, and that allows the baby to get better sleep. And sleep is when the brain grows.”
While Jackson’s original intent for The Zaky was to help her own son, her invention now been adopted by NICUs across the country and throughout the world. The Zaky can be purchased by hospitals for use in NICUs, or by parents directly who want to bring their own from home. In fact, Jackson’s company, Nurtured By Design, will even gift a Zaky to a unit with each individual purchase, which seems like a pretty good way to share the love.
As a former NICU parent myself, I vividly remember what it was like to wish that I could do something — anything — to help ease my children’s struggle. And, of course, there was no time that felt more apparent to me than when I had to go home and leave them behind. While there still may not be any truly reliable way to prevent babies from being born premature in the first place, the fact that there continues to be options to help their development in any way possible once they’re already out is the next best thing for a preemie parent’s heart. And it seems like The Zaky is a great way to help those tiny babies get the best start in life they can.More On