The Octopus for a Preemie charity provides premature babies with handmade comforters that have umbilical cord-like tentacles.
The scheme originated as Spruttegruppen in Denmark in 2013, as a response to the problem that premature babies (who had been born before 40 weeks of pregnancy) tended to pull on the tubes in their incubators, and were potentially doing themselves harm. It was realised that their hands were looking for something like the umbilical cord that they would have felt when they were in their mother's womb. Thus the idea was born to use crochet or knitting techniques to make an octopus with curly tentacles suitable for a tiny hand to grasp.
Similar schemes have been set up in other countries around the world, from Spain to the USA via Ukraine and Japan. Groups on social media help crafters to learn how to make the comforters. For example, in January 2020, Ośmiorniczki dla wcześniaków in Poland contained around 19,000 crafters and supporters, and Octopus for a Preemie US contained 11,000 people. The UK group (founded in 2016) has more than 20,000 members, but only around 400-500 people submit their work each month. Crafters vary in their output - some might produce just one or two comforters per year, while others can make one a day, but each one helps.
As an Octopus for a Preemie is not a toy, but is a medical comforter, it has to adhere to strict standards. It must be crocheted or knitted using 100% cotton yarn that can be washed at high temperatures. The octopus body must be crocheted or knitted tightly, so that none of the fibres from the specified polyester filling can escape, and tiny fingers cannot get caught in it. The size of the finished octopus is also important - the body must be small enough to fit into the incubator with the baby and medical equipment, but not too small to handle, and the tentacles must be long enough to do their job of comforting the baby, but not so long that the baby could get dangerously tangled in them1.
Each comforter is checked by a co-ordinator before being sent to a hospital. Not all of the finished products meet the standards required, but none of them are wasted - those that are not suitable for babies in incubators become comforters for bereaved parents of 'angel babies'.
As different hospitals in different countries have different requirements, a number of different official patterns for the comforters have been developed since the start of the scheme. They have been selected to be suitable for a range of knitters, crocheters and hospitals - the options include a stuffed octopus and a stuffed jellyfish, as well as a flat (unstuffed) jellyfish, alien and monkey.
How to Get Involved
If you would like to try making an Octopus for a Preemie, search online to find and join your nearest group. In the group, you will be introduced to your local co-ordinator and can download the patterns for the comforters that are needed by your local hospitals2. You can access tutorial videos, share photos of your work, or ask for help. You may also get the opportunity to attend a local meeting, where you can pick up hints and tips from fellow crafters and bring your finished comforters for checking.
If you are not able to make a comforter, then there are other ways to support the scheme. Donations of money, approved filling or yarn are welcomed. If you can knit or crochet, but are not able to handle the yarn tension needed to create a safe comforter, then you can volunteer to make other items, such as angel wings for the comforters that go to 'angel babies'. To get involved, join a group and ask your co-ordinator how you can help.