CEDAR HILLS It almost didn't look like a baby, the fragile little body, naked beneath a mass of tangled wires and tubes in the neonatal intensive care unit. She couldn't touch him. She couldn't feed him. Her son, born 10 weeks premature, teetered so precariously on the edge of life that she was almost afraid to let herself love him.
"It's hard to feel like a real mother when you can't take care of your baby," said Brooke Cardon, 26, of the harrowing weeks her son, Elliot, spent in the NICU after he was born June 9, 2005. "I felt so helpless."
Debbie Besselievre, Cardon's mother, couldn't stand to watch her daughter hovering so wistfully over Elliot's incubator. The thought came to her, as if in answer to prayer: If only Cardon could dress her little boy like a healthy, full-term baby, then mother and son would bond.
That was the beginning of Elliot's Preemie Tees, a Cedar Hills-based company that specializes in customized clothing for premature babies.
Besselievre quickly discovered that the majority of clothing manufactured for premature infants drowned Elliot, who weighed only 1 pound 12 ounces at birth. Smaller styles either didn't accommodate Elliot's IV or "looked like something an alien would wear," she said.
"Elliot looked so scary with all those tubes and monitors," said Besselievre, who manages Elliot's Preemie Tees out of her basement. "I thought maybe if Brooke could dress him in normal, cute baby clothes, it would relieve some of the fear that he wasn't going to make it."
So, armed with 25 years sewing experience, the new grandmother went to the drawing board.
She researched preemie sizing online, bought the fabric store out of preemie-sized patterns and, with the help of a NICU nurse, took little Elliot's measurements. After that, all it took to make Elliot the best-dressed baby in the NICU was a quarter yard of fuzzy fabric and some colored snaps.
Besselievre fine-tuned the details of the little tees using Elliot as a guinea pig. A tag was too scratchy for his sensitive skin, so she ironed a label on the outside of his clothing. The oxygen tube got in the way when she tried to pull a tee over his head, so she made the outfits snap over each shoulder.
"Elliot's favorite trick was to loop his finger around the oxygen tube and pull it out of his nose," she said. "That's where we got the idea to make the sleeves so they could cover his little hands."
Now Besselievre, through Elliot's Preemie Tees, is dressing babies in intensive care units all over the country.
Some say the clothes do more than keep the babies looking cute and cuddly. According to an observational March of Dimes study, parents who are able to clothe their premature babies develop a bond through caring for their child that they otherwise don't experience.
"A mother that has a baby in a newborn nursery feeds the baby, changes the baby and cleans the baby," said Laura D'Alessio, a registered nurse who works in the NICU at Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York. "In the NICU, parents don't get that interaction. A lot of times they feel a total disconnect because doctors handle everything and they don't have much to do with the care of their baby."
D'Alessio was searching for preemie clothing that wouldn't interfere with hospital care when she stumbled upon Elliot's Preemie Tees online. She keeps a stash of the little outfits on hand to pass out to struggling parents.
One young mother, D'Alessio said, was having trouble producing breast milk for her baby in the NICU. D'Alessio gave the woman one of Elliot's Preemie Tees to try on her little girl. The baby's skin was too sensitive to leave the outfit on, but the mother took it home with her.
The smell of the baby on the clothing triggered something in the mother, she said.
"It was the most amazing thing," D'Alessio said. "She took that home with her and it helped her to produce enough milk to feed her baby."
Stories like that, Besselievre said, inspire her to keep sewing. The grandmother decorates her sewing room with photos, sent to her by grateful parents, of babies wearing her homemade outfits."We just feel so blessed that Elliot's alive and healthy," Besselievre said. "We just feel a tremendous need to give back and help other people who are going through a difficult circumstance. We know how hard it can be."