Clutching her handmade rice doll to her chest, Angelica Garcia quietly sang Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to her newborn brother this week as he slept in an incubator at Baylor All Saints Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
It will be months before Jesus, born prematurely and weighing less than 2 pounds, will be able to join his mom Claudia Rodriguez and 5-year-old sister Angelica at home. But big sister is already preparing for that that special day with the help of her doll, which she named after her brother.
“I have been practicing with my rice baby,” said Angelica, who also sings lullabies to the doll. “My baby loves it a lot.”
For the past three years, NICU Helping Hands at Baylor All Saints in Fort Worth has helped children like Angelica create dolls to understand how small their premature brothers or sisters really are. The older siblings fashion their dolls by filling a white sock with rice until it weighs what their new sibling did at birth. The dolls are then swaddled in a tiny, colorful blanket and decorated with plastic eyes, pacifier and a baby hat.
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Angelica, like many of the children, takes the doll everywhere — even on visits to the NICU, said Lisa Grubbs, NICU Helping Hands founder.
“They learn that the baby is very little and lightweight. They hold it and want to protect it,” Grubbs said. “They are very nurturing. It’s the first opportunity a sibling has to really make a connection with their new brother or sister.”
About 120 rice dolls have been created each year by families with premature babies since NICU Helping Hands, a Fort Worth-based national nonprofit, started offering the activity at Baylor All Saints in 2011. The organization also offers services such as bereavement support, programs about infant nutrition and sleep safety and sessions on what parents can expect medically and developmentally for their premature babies.
Rodriguez, 30, delivered her son, who was nearly 16 weeks early, on Jan. 15 and doesn’t expect him to come home until her original due date in early May. Until then, Rodriguez said, she has enjoyed watching her daughter dote on the rice doll, which she recently brought to visit grandmother’s home.
“She carried him for the whole time. She cared for him like it was her actual brother,” Rodriguez said. “To me, it did help her understand. She felt like it was her brother she was caring for.”