Hospital Has Volunteer Staff To Cuddle Premature Babies

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A hospital in Idaho has found a unique way to give babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) the love and affection they need. Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho has hired a staff of volunteers to cuddle with the babies in their NICU, usually babies who are born premature.

“Babies that are born premature need a lot of one-on-one touching and holding,” explains volunteer Gayle Williams, 77. “I had grandchildren – a set of triplets and a grandson – born premature, so I understand the need for the attention. They just prosper and grow better with that touch and care.”

Most babies who are born premature stay in the hospital long after their mother has been discharged. Parents aren’t always there to hold their baby, and so the hospital’s 10 cuddle volunteers are able to fill that need.

The program started in 2011 to help support the development of newborns, especially preemies. The volunteers go through background checks, get their flu shot, and know not to come in if they are sick.

Most of the volunteers are former nurses or have previous experience caring for children. They also receive training on how to care for the babies and comfort them.

“I talk to the babies all the time. I say their name, and I talk to them when I rock them. Even if I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, I sing to them,” Williams says. “I think they’re responding to the warmth and voice, the human touch.”

The program has become so popular that there is a wait list to become a volunteer. Shannie Davis, who oversees volunteer services at the hospital, says in January she posted a message on Facebook looking for volunteers and had received 96 applications by the next morning.

Davis describes the training as “extensive” to ensure the volunteers know how to comfort the babies properly. “We want to provide interactions with these babies above what our staff does,” she explains. “It really supports growth and development. They just grow faster, all infants do, but especially the preemies need it.”

For volunteers like Williams, it’s a labor of love and a rewarding experience. “To watch the baby going from totally quiet and eyes closed, to opening eyes at the end of that time and looking at me wide-eyed, it’s amazing to watch,” she says. “When you see a baby goes home, I’m very happy.”