Cuddle crew at St. Mary’s Hospital keeps infants company

PHOTOS: Cuddle crew at St. Mary’s Hospital keeps infants company

Karen Smith’s four grandchildren haven’t been at the “cuddling” age for years, and she misses it.

“It’s special for me. I just cuddle, pray, sing, rock,” Smith said.

Smith spends two hours every week doing just that. She puts away her cellphone and doesn’t bring a book to read. All of her attention is on the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Smith is one of seven volunteers who are part of the NICU Cuddlers program, which started this year. All of the cuddlers go through training in order to help in the unit.

“They know that someone is there holding them,” Smith said. “I might not have their mother’s voice, but there is someone loving them. So that’s the best part.”

The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 1-in-10 babies are born prematurely in the U.S., and preterm birth is the leading cause of infant death nationwide.

Not all of the babies in the NICU are premature. Some have genetic conditions or need surgery for digestive issues, nurses said. Smith remembers holding one who was born in withdrawal.

“They touch my heart. They really do,” Smith said.

Kelly Peters, a registered nurse with St. Mary’s NICU, said having human contact is important for a baby’s development. Peters said some parents have to be in the unit for months and can’t be there at all hours of the day.

“For some reason, if they’re not able to be here, then it allows the babies to still be held and still get that human interaction that they really need,” Peters said.

Peters points out the “cuddler” volunteers also help with stocking shelves, doing laundry and anything else that needs to be done in the unit. That said, their main responsibility is to hold the babies when no one else can.

“Unfortunately, we can’t always spend as much time as we would like to with them, so it allows us to go ahead and take care of the other kiddos while they can come in and still give them that interaction that they need,” Peters said.

The NICU Cuddlers aren’t allowed to hold any baby that is very ill and still limited to the incubator. Smith said every infant she has held has gone home happy and healthy.

“You just look at them and they’re beautiful and you just hope that they’re going to get nurtured and loved,” Smith said. “And I can help give them love when their parents aren’t here.”

There is a wait list at this point for volunteers.