Tiny costumes for babies in intensive care brighten first Halloween for families

October 20, 2021
Preemie Kai Williamson lying in bed with a turtle costume.
Kai Williamson, 11 days old and born 11 weeks early, sleeps in his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume. Photos by Sarah Pack

Kai Williamson makes one adorably tiny turtle. Born 11 weeks early, the Beaufort boy nestles beneath a hand-made felt shell in his bed in the neonatal intensive care unit at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital. A red mask, made by NICU nurses, encircles his closed eyes. It’s his first Halloween costume, made by nurses with big hearts for the hospitals’ tiniest patients.

Kai’s parents, Darreontae Williamson and Aaliyah Swan, are amused. “His dad jumped right in. He saw the costume and he was like, ‘The turtle.’ Didn’t even let her explain what was happening,” Kai’s mother said of the moment nurse Mara Lloyd arrived with the costume.

It’s modeled after one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Williamson’s delight. “Raphael. He’s the leader,” the new father said.

Nurses Kennedy Herbert, Haley Kowalski, Rebecca McGann, Mara Lloyd and Amanda Regan organize the 75 Halloween costumes they made by hand for the babies in the NICU. 
Neonatal intensive care unit nurses (left to right) Kennedy Herbert, Haley Kowalski, Rebecca McGann, Mara Lloyd and Amanda Regan organize the babies' Halloween costumes.

NICU nurses have made more than 70 Halloween costumes by hand, one for every baby in the unit. Really, it’s for the parents, Lloyd said. She came up with the project.

“Maybe normalize the holiday a little bit more. If it's a premature baby, they were probably still planning to be pregnant on Halloween and do something with their family. Now they can't. But they can see them dressed up.”

The costumes represent everything from cartoon characters to coffee – and beyond. “All of our nurses love Starbucks, so we made Starbucks cups. Then there are some capes with superheroes. We have peanut butter and jelly for twins, little jars. And then there's bacon and eggs, also for twins. And a little scrub jacket for an itty bitty.”

The babies in the unit range from full-term sized to less than a pound. “Normally they’re here for prematurity or complications from birth,” Lloyd said. They stay anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on their diagnosis. The nurses temporarily become part of their lives, a role they love. 

Bags of Halloween costumes for premature babies. 
A salt shaker, a superhero cape and llamas are among the costumes the nurses made by hand.

“I like the complexity. You're not just caring for the infant. You're caring for the whole family. You're teaching them how to be a parent for their baby,” Lloyd said.

Along the way, they’re providing more than medical advice. They’re also making sure everyone is safe and comfortable as possible during their stay. 

The nurses plan to hand out costumes to all of the babies on Halloween. Kai got his early so the nurses could demonstrate how they’d carefully place them on the fragile children. 

“You’re famous already,” Kai’s mom tells him as a photographer snaps a picture. The tiny turtle stays snug in his bed. But one day, he’ll be able to see that photo of himself on his very first Halloween.

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