Jana Arntz gazed down at her baby boy, Mason, who just turned a month old.
He was dressed for the season, wearing a homemade blue sweater with snowflakes and tinsel to ring in the holidays with cheer.
Jana’s 3 1/2-year-old son, Erick, helped decorate the sweater and handpicked the original design.
“He was wondering how Mason was going to put the sweater on, as it doesn’t have a neck hole,” Jana joked.
Covered in blue snowflakes and tinsel, it resembles the blustery winter scenery outdoors.
Jana said she and the family plan to spend quite a bit of time in the NICU over the holidays, as that’s where Mason will be.
“We’ll try to see family, too,” she said. “It’s going to be a busy time.”
A labor of love
The concept of an ugly sweater contest in the NICU came from Amy Nyberg, March of Dimes NICU Family Support program coordinator at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. She saw other NICUs across the country doing similar things and felt it would be a great program for the hospital.
Nyberg specializes in caring for families of the some of the hospital’s tiniest babies.
It’s a labor of love and it’s important work, she said. It brings smiles to families that will spend the holidays in the hospital.
Family members are given a blank sweater and they have four themes to choose from.
Then, a baggie of prepackaged goodies arrives to fill the blank canvas, and the decorating begins.
The team hosts a craft hour to decorate together with other families.
And some got super fancy this year.
When all the sweaters are complete, families and staff get the opportunity to vote for their favorite photos of babies wearing the ugly sweaters. A gift basket is given to the family with the most votes.
It’s just the second year for the ugly sweater program—and families have grown to love it. Even siblings get to participate.
The families often say thank you for having the opportunity to do this during the holidays, particularly while their babies are in the hospital, the team members said.
Bundles of holiday cheer
Just down the hall was Colt Gilroy, born at 31 weeks. He’ll soon be 1 month old. He was in the middle of a nice nap when his sweater arrived. It was a traditional holiday green with tinsel, snowflakes and snowmen.
Avery Taylor, born at 23 weeks as a micro-preemie, spent some time in the small baby unit, but she’s growing and thriving now.
Lauren Edington, a nurse in the NICU, has been caring for Avery for a few months.
“She’s my friend,” Edington said. “And she’s the boss. No question about that.”
Edington said being able to watch these babies grow and eventually go home is the best part of her job.
Avery’s mom was at work when the sweaters were passed out, so her dressing was entrusted to Edington. Her sweater shows her strong love of gingerbread and gingerbread houses.
Harrison and Leonard Thiry were born at 33 weeks. They’re now 2 weeks old.
Their mother, Mallory, joked that they look like little chefs with their cute white hats.
“I saw photos from Halloween in the NICU and just started crying,” she said. “I said those are going to be my babies someday.”
Madison Miller, born at 34 weeks, will be 3 months old on Christmas Day.
She and her family hail from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. They said they made the trek to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital for the expert NICU care.
She donned a big red bow on her forehead and a pink sweater with red and green twinkle lights.
“We were here for an appointment before she was born and we ended up just staying,” Kasandra Miller, Madison’s mom, said. “We have two kids at home and they visit on weekends.”
Wynnlee Hollinshead, born at 28 weeks, wore a hand-painted sweater. Her mom, Bethany, did not use stencils or the craft kit.
“I did my own thing,” Bethany said.
She took out Wynnlee’s pacifier for a moment to show off her baby’s beautiful smile.
“We call her a billy goat because that’s what she sounds like when she coos,” Bethany joked.
Ja’Sai Andino, 3 months old, was born with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia and placed twice on ECMO, a heart-lung bypass for newborns. He had surgery just five days after birth.
His mom, Shakelia Andino, said she and Ja’Sai’s father, Jason Cole, decorated his sweater together.
“He is such a miracle,” she said. “We went with a winter wonderland look. It matches the decorations on his door, too.”