First of its kind nursery provides specialist day care for kids with complex needs
Jenny Lee visits an innovative day nursery in Co Armagh which provides care for children with and without complex medical needs
FINDING reliable, quality child care can be a difficult and stressful task for any parent. Finding quality and inclusive child care for children with disabilities and special healthcare needs can be almost impossible.
But thanks to the vision of Co Down nurse Kathryn Brown, parents of little ones with complex health needs are now being given the opportunity to return to employment or have some valuable respite from their role as a parent and full-time carer.
Kathryn, who previously works in the children's ward of Craigavon Area Hospital, as well as having had experience working in paediatric community nursing, opened Nana G's daycare in Portadown this summer.
It is the first facility of it's kind in the UK and Ireland, providing specialist daycare for children aged from birth up to three years old, with and without complex nursing needs.
"When working in community children's nursing, every September we would have gone into the schools or nurseries to train staff," Kathryn says. This sometimes involved showing school care staff to tube feed children unable to take food orally through a 'PEG' abdominal tube feeding technique.
"At one school there was a wee boy who was 'artificially fed' and I had to take him into a wee cupboard. He wanted to sit in the dining hall with his friends and it wasn't allowed. I felt this was awful and thought, wouldn't it be great if there was a nursery, staffed by nurses, where you could have more than one of those children?" Kathryn says.
Staffed by paediatric nurses, working alongside childcare nurses, Nana G's can provide for children with such specialist feeding requirements, as well as ventilatory or oxygen support and colostomy and tracheotomy care.
Currently caring for children who are blind, deaf, have cerebral palsy, charge syndrome, speech and language delays, Nana G's is registered with social services for 12 children a day, including three children who don't have any particular medical needs.
"We believe all children should play, learn and grow together. The whole purpose of opening was so that all kids could have the same opportunities, whether they are sick or not," says Kathryn, from Dollingstown.
The nursery consists of a play area, kitchen, sleep area, sensory room and a garden, complete with grass, lights, wind chimes, plants and brightly painted walls.
Upon visiting, I couldn't help remark at the sense of calm and serenity as the children lay on their play mats.
"The children are so chilled. We as nurses are coming from a ward situation where it is all go, go, go, so it's strange for us too," says Kathryn. "The sensory room, with it's various lights can be so calming for them. We put music on in the background – whether that’s baby Mozart or music specifically designed for cerebral stimulation. Some dance to it, others sleep to it."
Whether orally or artificially fed, children all sit together around the table and eat as a normal family would. The nursery has even had a doll specially made to be tube fed.
As well as normal nursery activities such as painting pictures and music time, the staff also do Makaton sign language with the children and adhere to their personal care plans, doing activities or exercises suggested by the individual child's physio or speech therapist.
Getting from idea to reality was an uphill challenge financially, bureaucratically and emotionally for Kathryn, whose mother died from cancer before the nursery, named in her honour, opened.
Kathryn, who holds a Masters in Advanced Paediatric Nursing first took her business plan to Invest NI in 2015.
"They said it sounded great, but didn't know how to help me as there wasn't anywhere like this before," she recalls.
Resigning from her secure full-time job at Craigavon Area Hospital, Kathryn took out two loans and invested her own savings into Nana G's. She says it's all been worth it.
"Work is always a pleasure. These little people never cease to amaze."
She is already making plans to further expand the business, hoping to get the authorities to raise the upper age limit to five.
"Many of the kids here have complex needs and I don't know how they would fit into a pre-school setting. And sadly a lot of kids we will care for have life-limiting conditions and may not even make it to school age."
Whilst Nana G's is a private day nursery, they do accept childcare vouchers and many parents use their carer's allowance to help pay the fees.
One little boy, who has already shown developmental improvements since starting at the nursery two months ago, is two-and-a-half year old Mason Dynes. The Lurgan toddler has had a difficult start in life, having been born with extensive medical and physical difficulties that require constant specialised care.
"No two nights are the same. No two days are the same," says mum Nicola, who left full-time employment to care for Mason. While she does get some night-time nursing care support, the days can be very isolating as Nicola finds it hard to leave the house due to the hands-on care her son needs, along with juggling the needs of his brother and sister Molly (6) and Ben (4).
"It was a big step for me to take Mason to Nana G's because, bar the nurses that come into our home to help, he is never left with anyone but me to meet his needs."
Mason started going once a week to the nursery but now attends twice. During the day, staff send Nicola pictures of her son to let her know how he's getting on.
"The first day he started they tried doing his footprint and he didn’t tolerate it very well. He came home two weeks ago with a footprint he enjoyed doing. Getting little pictures home means the world to me and shows he’s making progress. He’s also beginning to sit-up. He’s happy, so I'm happy".
When Mason is at nursery Nicola gets valuable respite time to herself – to close her eyes, do errands, housework and, most importantly to her, spend quality time with her other children.
"Mason doesn’t cope well with cold weather conditions and even something simple such as going to the park requires bringing so much equipment as you need to schedule everything around his two-hourly feeds and medicine. Without Mason with us, I can now venture further and take my other children to various activities."
:: For further information visit Facebook.com/nanagsdaycare.