Helping Babies Emotionally

Helping Babies Emotionally

Great Falls medical student makes crocheted octopus dolls to comfort babies in hospitals.

Crocheted Octopus doll by Abhya Vij.

Crocheted Octopus doll by Abhya Vij. Photo contributed


Crocheted Octopus dolls for Preemies.

About the Author

Educational Background:

George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, 2022; Bachelor of Science double major in Neuroscience and Computer Science, 2017; Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, 2013

Today, the medical landscape is changing rapidly, with more focus on the social and psychological components of an individual's well-being. As a student entering George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences this year, I have an acute interest in finding ways for healthcare providers to support a patient's health holistically.

One group that I am especially interested in is the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)​. How can we best care for the emotional health of preemies requiring an extended stay in the hospital away from family?

I came across a unique solution back in October 2017. On Facebook, I watched a video about crocheted octopus dolls being used in NICUs in Europe to comfort babies. The video explained that the tentacles give babies something to grasp and tug on instead of their monitors, and are reminiscent of the umbilical cord, which babies like to grasp in the womb. It also is a great way to introduce parents’ scents (the parents sleep with their baby’s octopus beforehand) and facilitate bonding. One mother shared with me the comfort she found in knowing that even while she was away from the NICU her twins had her scent nearby and a tentacle in hand.

Despite my lack of crochet experience, I promptly joined the US program, founded just a year and a half ago, and bought some approved 100 percent cotton yarn and a very tiny crochet hook (critical for crafting a tight enough octopus head). I watched YouTube videos at 0.25x speed to learn how to crochet, made several “failing” octopuses that didn’t meet the very stringent safety guidelines, and finally, it all clicked. My fifth octopus had a head of 2.7" (2.5"-3.5" is passing), was stuffed hard enough that I could not compress it with a firm, one finger press (reducing suffocation risk), and I could not pass a Dum Dum lollipop stick through any gap between stitches (reducing risk of fingers being caught). Each tentacle, stretched as hard as I could pull it, measured within the passing range of 6.3"-8.5" (which reduces strangulation risk). Following completion of the sixth, I was certified with two passing octopuses. This may sound like a lot, but the stringent rules help to keep the littlest of the babies safe!

Having grown up in Northern Virginia, it was important for me to find a way to give back to the community. I saw that this program had not yet reached the NICUs in our area, and enthusiastically applied to become an ambassador to the NICUs here in D.C., and in the meantime contributed octopuses to hospitals nationwide. Today, I serve as the official Octopus for a Preemie - US ambassador to Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, George Washington University Hospital, and Children's National Medical Center NICUs.

After getting approved, I met with the Chief of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine at MedStar Georgetown and presented the project. I received approval from Georgetown. On July 16, I made my first delivery of 40 octopuses to Georgetown’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and the nurses, families, and patients have been enjoying their distribution. This first set of 40 were all made by me. Georgetown's next delivery will be composed of 100 octopuses sent from crafters all over the U.S. through the national certified crafters' group.

Our biggest current ​ limitation is the huge demand for octopuses nationwide, and not enough certified crafters (fewer than 300 for the 100+ hospitals the national group serves). Therefore, I have been working hard to train more local crafters, who will continue to help me meet the demand from Georgetown. I have been holding free crafting sessions to teach interested local groups how to make these dolls, including a group from Trinity Methodist Church in McLean, and a chapter of the Crochet Guild of America in Falls Church. Others reached out to me individually through My Neighbors Network. I also look forward to beginning a club at George Washington University, where I will teach other medical students the skill (15+ have already reached out!). I recently created a Facebook group, Octopus for a Preemie - DC/Northern VA/Maryland Chapter to help connect with local crafters who are interested in contributing.

My hope is that with enough local crafters, we will be able to meet and exceed demand from Georgetown, and then reach out to George Washington University Hospital and Children's National Medical Center. This 'giving' project can engage and benefit from any age group volunteers ranging from youth to seniors. I find it very rewarding.