It’s well established that newborns benefit from touch. But in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) it’s more difficult to give newborns the nurturing contact they need because of the wires, equipment and incubators helping them survive. That’s where the cuddlers come in. Volunteers are working at hospitals around the country cuddling premature newborns who cannot go home yet.
When nurses are swamped with other patients and parents cannot make it to the hospital, grandmas, empty-nesters, college students and other volunteers step in. They hold the babies, swaddle them, sing and coo to them, rock them, and treat them as if they were their own.
NICUs are noisy, stressful environments. There are babies born extremely prematurely, or with birth defects and other illnesses. Some are too sick to be held – but not too sick to touch. Cuddlers reach a finger inside their incubators and stroke tiny bare bellies.
“You can see them calm, you can see their heart rate drop, you can see their little brows relax,” said Kathleen Jones, 52, a cuddler at the Chicago hospital. “They’re fighting so hard and they’re undergoing all this medical drama and trauma. My heart breaks for them a little bit.”
Jones used to wonder why parents or other relatives aren’t comforting their own babies. But then, in August, her youngest grandchild was born deaf, with brain damage doctors say was caused by a virus her mom contracted before birth. The baby spent her first three weeks at Comer, and got cuddling care while she was there.
While family members visited often, “life happens and you can’t sit by a bedside for three weeks,” Jones said.
Jones’ daughter had had a C-section, and already had her hands full with a toddler at home. “She was being held and loved and watched over,” she said. “I felt a great sense of relief from that.”
Parents typically must consent for their babies to be part of cuddling programs, and cuddlers must undergo background checks and training before starting the job. At Chicago’s Comer hospital, that includes lessons in how to swaddle babies tight to make them feel safe and how to maneuver around intravenous lines, as well as instruction in hygiene including frequent hand-washing.
Other cuddling services for preemies exist throughout the country. Contact your local hospital.