Babies in the St. Mary's NICU have an extra special team of caregivers. Not just the doctors and nurses, although the care they provide is indeed special. This special group of caregivers are volunteer cuddlers.
The NICU Cuddler program was implemented at St. Mary's Hospital last December. Essentially it's a group of eight volunteers who hold and cuddle babies in the NICU when they need to be comforted and a parent can't be there.
"The cuddler program provides this warm human contact that we all know is critical to healthy development," said Laura Ziebarth, manager of the NICU. "Fortunately most of our families are able to be here, but as we are a regional transport center, some families have a significant distance and can't be here as often as they would like to be. This is where the cuddlers make such a difference."
Research shows that single patient rooms are beneficial to providing newborns with the uninterrupted sleep they need. But when the babies are awake and their parents are at work or are caring for other children at home, the infants miss out on the contact and the normal developmental stimulation that occurs when parents are holding and caring for them.
"We also have a significant number of patients who are experiencing drug withdrawal, most often due to Methadone treatment their moms are receiving," Laura said. "These babies are comforted by holding and benefit greatly by having a cuddler here to rock and hold them."
Longtime St. Mary's volunteer George Falor helped get the program up and running. He's been a NICU cuddler at Meriter for five years, and told Joanne Johnson, director of Volunteer Services, that if a program ever started at St. Mary's he wanted to be involved.
"Last summer they had the NICU reunion at Warner Park and Laura came up to me and said, 'Are you the George that's going to help us start the cuddler program?'" he said.
George agreed to help, and worked with the nursing staff to establish a training program for the volunteers. While he doesn't directly train them, he's the gatekeeper to making sure all new cuddlers are ready to be on their own.
"I'm a mentor," George said. "The first night, all new cuddlers are going to sit with me, or I'll sit with them."
The nursing staff has welcomed the cuddlers, who typically spend anywhere from two to four hours at a time in the NICU. Some are there once a week, others more. There aren't always babies to hold, so the volunteers help out in other ways, such as folding baby clothes, doing minor clerical work like stuffing admission folders, or even offering emotional support to families.
"The nurses view us as an extension of them," said George. "They all have two or three babies to tend to, depending on the severity and how much care a baby needs. The nurses will tell us which ones to hold. But some nights you go up and there are no babies to hold. They're not going to wake a baby. There are hills and valleys where you get babies to hold, and then other times they are all peaceful or their parents are there."
The nurses talk with new parents to let them know about the cuddler program. Parents can opt out if they would prefer that a volunteer not hold their baby. But that reaction is rare.
"They're glad someone is holding their baby," said George. "The nurses explain that we're here if your baby's upset or a little agitated, we hold them and help them relax, get them to sleep."
Unlike the nursing staff, cuddlers don't provide specialized care. But they do provide a comforting touch when it's needed.
"Touch, whether it be kangaroo care (skin-to-skin holding) or just being held is such an important part of healthy growing for babies," said Dr. Paolo Fliman, St. Mary's NICU Medical Director. "Our cuddlers have been such an important part of this."
The cuddlers can also act as an extension of mom and dad when a baby needs extra care.
"Recently a friend of mine who's part of the cuddler team here was telling me there were some therapy instructions on the wall about the baby not moving its head enough," George said. "So she read (the instructions) and slowly went through the steps with the baby. Not that she's a therapist, but the instructions were pretty clear and were written for the parents to follow."
George says being able to offer this kind of support to new families who need it is rewarding to the volunteers.
"I get the satisfaction that I've done something, that I've helped somebody," he said. "I'm not a coach, I can't go out and coach Little League or something like that. This I can do. And I enjoy it."
The NICU Cuddler program has become a standard of care at St. Mary's and is offered to all NICU families, provided the baby is big enough to be safely held. Some of the families and nurses refer to the cuddlers as life-savers.
"I wish we had met this wonderful group of volunteers sooner," Laura said. "I don't know how we ever managed without them."