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Nurses at Penn Medicine took part in the "PJs with a smile" project, aiming to help mothers with children in the NICU.

Credit: Katharine Shao

After giving birth, most mothers are discharged from the hospital with balloons and a baby in their arms. 2015 Master's of Bioethics graduate Bridget Nolan-McKinney said she had to leave the hospital empty-handed.

Her daughter Nora was born prematurely and would have to spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

When she arrived home, Nolan-McKinney, who is the Director of Regulatory Affairs at Women's Health Clinical Research Center, said her mother had given her a fresh set of pajamas, a reminder for Nolan-McKinney to rest and recover. After bringing her daughter home two weeks later, Nolan-McKinney said she was determined to provide support to every mother who also had to leave the hospital with her baby staying in the NICU. She said this is what prompted her to launch her new initiative, PJs with a Smile, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

“I realized that there’s so much focus on baby that there’s not enough focus on mom during this time, and I wanted to do something special for moms," she said. 

Through the project, every mother discharged without her baby is given a care package containing a fresh-cut flower and a new set of pajamas. 

To launch her initiative, Nolan-McKinney worked with The Superhero Project, a nonprofit founded in 2015 that aims to help NICU families. The Superhero Project was founded by Kelly Gallagher, whose own experience as a NICU mom inspired her to help other NICU moms through a difficult time

Credit: Katharine Shao The NICU moms each received gift bags with PJs and the contact information of another former NICU mom in them.

The PJs with a Smile package also includes a note from a former NICU mom and her contact information. For Nolan-McKinney, connecting NICU moms with one another is one of the most important aspects of the initiative.

“Unless you go through the experience, you really can't know what it's like or have the right advice.” Nolan-McKinney said.

“It’s that whole line of having empathy, not sympathy, and being able to say to somebody ‘I understand what you’re going through’ is so important for moms," Gallagher said. 

NICU moms are at a high risk of developing postpartum depression and anxiety. One study showed up to 70 percent of women whose babies spend time in the NICU have experienced postpartum depression to some extent. 

Credit: Katharine Shao

Bridget Nolan-McKinney (left), 2015 Penn Medicine graduate, and Sarah Wadsworth (right), a clinical practice leader at Penn Medicine, both took part in the event.

Sarah Wadsworth, a clinical practice leader at Penn Medicine, said while the hospital does host some support groups for mothers, there was no formal support given specifically for NICU moms. She added that though doctors and nurses offer help and encourage NICU moms to ask questions, that approach may not be effective enough. 

"A lot of times the moms don't even know what questions they have,” Wadsworth said. “They don't know if the feelings they're feeling are normal. I think it's really important for them to know that it's OK to feel stressed, it's OK to feel upset, and to know they're not the only ones [feeling this way].”

Though PJs with a Smile only launched last November, Nolan-McKinney already has plans to host a 5K in May to fundraise for the initiative and launch a nationwide NICU mom letter-writing campaign. Nolan-McKinney said she hopes to eventually expand the initiative to hospitals around the country.

"The overall goal is to see this in every hospital, with every mom with a NICU baby receiving the therapy pajamas," said Nolan-McKinney. "That's where I would love to see this in 10 years.”