One of the most stressful events a parent can experience is having to leave their child at the hospital. A premature baby will spend time in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), for many different reasons and cuddling can bring comfort to these tiny patients. While in the NICU they are cared for by some of the best nurses. Yet any mom who has had to leave her newborn at the hospital knows that it is still a difficult task, emotionally as well as physically. Nurses who chose the profession of working with newborns or infants in NICU’s are special. They can also be overwhelmed with the amount of patients that they see, mix that in with a mom who has older children at home to take care of and a need arises for someone to come in and help. When the nurses are busy with other patients and mom or dad cannot be there to cuddle the baby, volunteer cuddlers come in. Retired grandma’s, college students, professionals, different people from all walks of life volunteer at the local children’s hospitals and NICU’s to hold and cuddle babies who are hospitalized for one reason or another.
Scientific evidence to the effects of cuddling may be scarce, however, doctors and parents both know that babies seem to gain a lot out of skin to skin contact. Recent studies suggest that holding or even just touching a premature baby can help with heart rate, calm a stressed baby, and perhaps even result in shorter hospital stays. Dr. Jerry Schwartz the medical director of neonatology at Torrence Memorial Medical Center in California says that the benefits even at the most superficial level are obvious. One example he gives is when a baby is crying, the parents are not there to comfort it, and nurses are busy with other babies, a “cuddler” arrives and suddenly the baby stops crying, presto instant comfort.
Other research suggests that negative experiences have a definite impact on babies. Pain, stress, and separation have all been associated with poor brain development, according to Dr. Schwartz, he goes on to say that research with animals shows positive interactions enhance brain growth. While it is understandable that not all parents can spend unlimited time at the NICU with their baby and nurses have to split their attention between many different patients, these cuddling programs are a great way for infants to still get the needed attention and comfort they deserve.
Volunteers are vetted by the hospital and then trained on the proper way to hold a preemie or other sick infant. Their extensive training program helps the volunteers to become comfortable with the idea of holding a baby that perhaps is hooked up to various machines. Parents who have infants in the NICU can attest to just how terrifying it is. Parents have to consent to their babies being part of the cuddling program. One volunteer, Nancy Salcido, describes her experience, she says that part of cuddling the baby includes singing to them, talking about her day, and sometimes, Salicido says, she even gives them a little pep talk. As more hospitals and NICU’s begin to see the benefit of having baby cuddling programs and the comfort it brings to their patients these programs could expand.
By Rachel Woodruff