Creature Comforts

Winter Haven Hospital Volunteer Crochets Octopuses to Soothe NICU Babies


Gabriele Robinson has found a unique way to help premature babies. The Winter Haven Hospital volunteer crochets miniature octopus dolls for newborns in the Women’s Hospital Neonatal Infant Care Unit. 

Robinson, who has been creating the creatures of comfort since October, says each one takes about five hours to make. So far, she has made about 12 for the hospital. 

The octopuses help comfort premature babies. During a recent day volunteering at the hospital, where she spends about 10 hours a week donating her time, Robinson brought in knitted hats for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.  

With her most recent octopus donation, she also donated stuffed snowmen. She also knitted eight caps for newborn babies, each made using yarn with the calming colors of baby blue, sunshine orange, lemon yellow and light, lime green, and pink. 

From the basket, Robinson pulls out a snowman made of stuffed, white socks and holds it up. She says each one takes her about two hours to complete, but it’s a labor of love as opposed to a chore. 

“I love to do it, and I’m thankful that I can do it,” says Robinson, who moved to Winter Haven from Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1996. “I’m the kind of person, I can’t stand still; I need to be doing something and I’m happy I can do it. It makes me happy to make other people happy.” 

Robinson has made about 50 of the miniature snowmen — made with 100 percent cotton socks and washable, sanitized stuffing.  

It was in September, when Robinson brought in the hats, that chaplain Harvey Lester asked her to make the octopuses.  

“I thought, ‘I can figure that out.’ So I did. I made one of them in about five hours, and I did 10-12. It came easy to me once I knew what I was doing,” she says. 

The nursing staff first gives each octopus to the baby’s mother so the mother can hold it and get her scent on it.  

“Then the babies can get their mothers’ essence from the doll,” she explains.  

It’s all about making the newborns feel at ease, says Nicci Lambert, WHWH nurse supervisor who oversees the mother-baby and labor and delivery units.  

Lambert, who has spent 18 years with the hospital, says infants in the NICU unit are all at risk. She says the toy octopuses help remind the babies of being tethered to their umbilical cords and gives them a feeling of “calm, comforting and familiar surroundings.” 

“They provide the babies with a more developmentally friendly environment,” she says. “There has been such an overwhelmingly great response to this. We’re so thankful for her kindness and donations, not only for our NICU babies, but also for their families.” 

Robinson, 75, learned how to crochet when she was 5 years old from her grandmother in her hometown of Bavaria, Germany. She began to knit with yarn at 13 and continued the craft through adulthood, knitting for her sons, William and Richard, when they were young.  

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 15 million babies worldwide are born prematurely — that’s more than one in 10 babies. These babies are more susceptible to serious health issues such as breathing and feeding difficulties and developmental delays. 

Helping to ease the trauma or physical problems associated with premature birth for babies and mothers through the handcrafted octopuses and other dolls has also been a mission of the Crochet Guild of America, Central Florida Chapter, Schalamar Creek.  

That guild with currently about 10 members was the first group WHWH reached out to when the new dolls-for-infants project began and the first crochet doll was brought to the hospital for trial use in August, according to Guild President Phyllis Bullard.  By October, the hospital had more than 25 and Bullard says the Guild’s work to donate and help the hospital and NICU is a worthwhile endeavor, along with projects that include Good Shepherd Hospice, Guardian Ad Litem and the oncology unit of Winter Haven Hospital. 

“We do have several charity projects and this came up and we thought it was a good thing,” says Bullard of Lakeland. “We like to feel we’ve done some good in the community and it makes the Guild more meaningful. Out ladies are proud to be of service and to show we’re not just sitting around, playing with yarn.”  

As for her ambition to continue her crafts and carry on her donation of handmade octopuses and other figures – which cost her about 2 dollars each in supplies – Robinson says she’s happy to knit away.  

“I make no money doing this. I just give them to the mothers because I like to make people happy; I’ve always been a giving person, not a taker,” she says.

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