Tiny toes curling, dimpled fingers grasping, mouths tasting. These are some of the ways babies use their senses to explore the world. And for babies with impaired vision, these are the most important ways for gathering vital information.
“We like to say their hands are their eyes,” said Lisa Jacobs, a teacher of the deafblind at Perkins School for the Blind. “The babies start realizing their hands are going to give them a lot of information.”
So when Jacobs couldn’t find a tactual blanket small enough for a newborn to hold and touch, she asked her mother Pat Jacobs to make some. Thus the “blankets for babies” project was born.
Since that day four years ago, Pat Jacobs has made more than 100 blankets that combine a variety of tactile elements to encourage exploration and promote babies’ cognitive development.
The blankets measure three feet by two feet, just the right size for infants to lie on or hold on their laps. Each blanket has a solid color on one side, which Jacobs said provides ideal contrast for items placed on it. “You can put a toy in the foreground and encourage babies to use their residual vision to move toward it,” she said.
The other side of the blanket sports a variety of colors and textures designed to captivate small hands. Pat Jacobs frequently adds a red square to the front, because it’s one of the first colors that babies with cortical vision impairment can see. Then she adds different textures, including corduroy, velvet and flannel.
Sometimes she’ll add plastic scrubbies to the blanket, or an empty spool of thread on a sturdy piece of string, to give the babies something to play with. She has sewn a pocket onto a blanket to hold a small teddy bear. “The babies can take it out and put it back in,” she said.
This kind of tactile stimulation sparks curiosity and helps infants develop fine motor skills. “They can start categorizing,” Jacobs said. “This is soft, this is smooth, this is scratchy, this makes a sound. It gives them the opportunity to explore an environment with their hands.”
The blankets also support children in various stages of development, she added.
“They’re really nice for babies learning to roll, learning to sit up or be on their belly and play,” she said. “The blankets give them the motivation to move, to look, to turn.”
Materials for the blankets are donated. The odds and ends that make up the colorful patterns come from Pat Jacobs’ friends.
“Nothing is new,” she said. “Everything is recycled.”
Each blanket takes about an hour to create, though Pat Jacobs does them in sections, putting together several at a time. When she’s got the squares sewn up and the backing on them, she’ll quilt the blankets by machine. She then boxes them up and ships them from her home in Pennsylvania to her daughter at Perkins.
It’s an ideal job for Pat, a retired nurse who discovered later in life that she enjoyed sewing. “My mom was looking to do something that gave back,” Jacobs said.
Initially the blankets were just distributed to teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) through Perkins’ Educational Partnership program. The TVIs gave them to babies in early intervention, a program for infants with visual impairments who need therapeutic services. But Jacobs also started bringing them to Perkins’ international partners when she runs trainings for teachers in other countries.
Recently she was in Uganda and gave one to the head of St. Helen’s primary school in Mbarara. He plans to take it to his local artisan community for them to make more, with the goal of having one blanket for every home visit.
This doesn’t mean Pat Jacobs is out of a job. It just means the “blankets for babies” project has gone global. And that means more blankets grasped by more dimpled fingers, eager to start exploring the world around them.