Premature babies are extremely vulnerable and often too fragile to be held in the first few days of their lives.
To make the often heartbreaking experience a little easier for new parents, an organisation - Octopus For A Preemie UK - creates tiny crochet octopuses, which are given free of charge to premature babies in hospitals.
The octopus or “octopal” acts as a calming aid: The tentacles replicate the umbilical cord, which babies hold onto in the womb.
With the tentacles to hold, babies are less likely to pull out tubes and essential monitoring equipment cables that are attached to their bodies. A heart is crocheted separately and comes with the octopus, for the parents to hold.
“The feeling we get when we receive photos of a tiny preemie with their octopal, and they are gripping its tentacles, melts our hearts,” said Carol Flatman, 63, from Essex, who is one of seven women who run the project.
“Parents tell us what a difference it makes and how comforted they feel watching their newborn with the octopus.”
Octopus For A Preemie (OFAP) was founded in Denmark in February 2013 and quickly spread to other countries worldwide. In the UK, it began in August 2016.
When OFAPUK was first launched, there were just four members crocheting octopuses to supply a monthly quota to one hospital unit in Southampton.
The group slowly grew and by early 2017, there were 250 members involved. In April 2017, the number of people crocheting octopuses reached 1,500 and the organisation managed to extend their offering to supply more hospitals on a monthly basis.
The current number of volunteers is more than 16,000 and they now supply more than 2,000 octopuses to almost 60 NICUs throughout the UK every month.
Flatman joined OFAPUK in January 2017 as a way to give something back.
“I joined because I was recovering from cancer and I had a feeling of how lucky I was, but also the need to help others,” she said.
“I am an avid crocheter and a friend sent me the link so I made contact and joined. We receive no funding whatsoever and rely totally on the generosity of our members to help us make these octopuses.
“Every member buys their own materials and posts their creations to a local coordinator who checks each one thoroughly to ensure they meet our strict safety standards.”
The octopuses are then packaged with a care leaflet and hand delivered to hospitals. Marie Richter, neonatal unit matron at Kingston Hospital NHS Foundation Trust received octopuses for premature babies in August 2017.
“It has been wonderful to work with Octopus For A Preemie and we are so grateful for the donations,” she said.
“The soothers help to comfort the babies in our unit and aid us in supporting worried parents.”
Flatman said the organisation is heavily dependant on volunteers.
“We rely on donations and the kindness of others to help cover postage, cellophane bags and printing,” she said. “We don’t always get to know the names of the tiny babies who receive them, but the fact that it’s making a difference is all that matters.
“Running OFAPUK is a full-time job that’s for sure, but it is probably the most rewarding thing I have ever done and I know I speak for all of us involved.”
Flatman said it is important for new parents to know about the work that goes into ensuring these octopuses are safe for the babies.
Volunteers are given the crochet pattern to work with. They are told the donations must be made using only 100% cotton yarn and must be filled with high-quality fibre filling, which can withstand 60 degree washing, for the purposes of infection control. All donations they receive are safety checked.
The members emphasise that the octopuses are not toys and are only suitable for use whilst the baby is in NICU, under 24-hour supervision. New parents are advised that when babies are discharged, the octopus should be removed and placed in a keepsake box as a memento.
One mum, Haley-Lou Sparkles, who received an octopus for her premature son, Harrison, said: “My son loves his octopus. I can’t believe how beneficial they are. When it’s removed from him for his checks and wash over, he goes straight for the wires.”
Individual countries have their own criteria for acceptable octopus donations. OFAPUK adapted the original Danish patterns, following advice from British Trading Standards, to ensure they comply with recommendations.
“Our coordinators tirelessly check hundreds of octopals, pulling tentacles to check they are the correct measurements and ensuring there are no holes or loose threads,” Flatman expained.
To find volunteers, OFAPUK often advertise through posters and word of mouth, but they are always looking for more people to get involved.
“We need a constant supply of octopuses from volunteers to help us meet our monthly targets and eventually we would love to be able to supply donations to all the NICU babies who need them in our UK hospitals,” Flatman said.
“Our moderators who approve new members online and the amazing admin staff that I work with, who are with me seven days a week, all make sure these babies receive their very own octopus and they are all utterly amazing.
“They do a random act of kindness every time they pick up their crochet hook or knitting needles or pop into a shop a buy yarn to make something special for someone they will never know.
“These are very special people indeed.”
To find out more about OFAPUK and to get involved, you can find the crochet octopus pattern by joining the group here.