NICUs offering volunteer cuddling care to improve critical neonatal development

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When babies enter the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), there’s no telling how long they may need to stay. It could be weeks, even months before they’re able to return home.

And while most parents do everything they can to spend as much time as possible in the hospital alongside their newborns, it can be challenging to miss work or find alternative child care for weeks on end, especially when a NICU stay was not part of the plan.

Still, studies show contact is critical in newborn development, which is why area hospitals — including UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s and University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital — are bringing in volunteers to ensure infants get their cuddles.

Krista Husemann, an advanced registered nurse practitioner at St. Luke’s NICU, proposed the volunteer cuddling program to St. Luke’s last August after researching the effects of therapeutic touch on NICU patients. She found many studies showing touch can improve a baby’s heart rate, breathing, oxygen saturation, weight gain and sleep, she said. Research also showed improvement in cognitive development that helped babies learn language, speech and hearing skills sooner. It also helps babies with trust and bonding, she said.

“It’s really important for their brain and social development,” said Kerianne Rice, assistant nurse manager at UI’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital NICU.

“Just having the verbal interaction, but also bonding with somebody, it helps them neurologically,” she said. “It can also be a soothing factor for them, because not all babies eat and go to sleep easily. Some are fussy.”

St. Luke’s launched its cuddler program last August and has since formed a team of 17 volunteer cuddlers. UI Hospitals & Clinics, meanwhile, has had NICU volunteers for more than 30 years and generally has 20 to 35 volunteers available.

Cuddlers in both hospitals’ programs have gone through background checks, received up-to-date immunizations and attended specific training to learn baby etiquette, proper cuddling techniques, signs of stress, infection control and hand washing. Cuddlers work in shifts throughout the week to hold babies, sing to them, read books or even simply sit next to their crib.

“Any touching, talking or bonding time with another person really does help,” said Dawn Anderson, a St. Luke’s NICU volunteer and former elementary teacher.

“I love kids,” she said. “I just really enjoy holding the babies, watching their expressions and giving them the extra attention they need.”

Davette Watson of Waterloo said she struggled leaving her son’s NICU room even to go to the bathroom or take a walk outside. Her son, A.J. (Anthony Junior) Watson, was born at 13 weeks early at Allen Hospital in Waterloo. He was then transferred to St. Luke’s NICU, which was better equipped to handle premature infants, Watson said.

“Sometimes being in a hospital can be overwhelming, so I think it’s a good experience for any mom to have volunteers take some time off your hands,” Watson said. “I feel very blessed to be here. They made it a lot easier on me.”

NICU volunteers not only benefit babies and their families, but also busy nurses and the cuddlers themselves.

“Cuddlers often have a release of endorphins and experience a sense of euphoria,” Husemann said. “It’s not realistic for a nurse to hold a baby for a prolonged period of time. … Nurses have multiple assignments and it’s hard to guarantee cuddle time. So it’s a big relief on nursing staff, who have a natural pull to nurture and care for the baby, but may need to focus on something more critical going on. This way they see the baby getting constant support.”

“Knowing that the baby is being held and interacted with and getting that time, I think it’s just peace of mind for them,” Rice said.

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