Going from the warm, cozy comforts of the womb into the loud, bright world at birth is surely a jolt to the senses. The jolt is probably most alarming to the baby born prematurely, before physical and mental development are complete. Adding to their burden of adjustment, most preemies spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), attached to tubes and machines that never stop whizzing, humming, and beeping. What a frightening intro into a strange new world that must be.

Newborn in NICUPremature infants receive the ultimate in medical care but they often miss out on the therapeutic value of thehuman touch. Parents usually do all they can but they can’t be there 24 hours a day and NICU nurses must divvy up their time as duty dictates. For some very lucky preemies, NICU volunteer “cuddlers” come to the rescue. These volunteers are trained to hold and comfort NICU babies when parents and nurses can’t be there. This labor of love is embraced by volunteers of every kind.

Kathleen Jones, 52, cuddles at the Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago, where she says the babies undergo so much medical drama and trauma that picking them up or touching them brings so much relief you can see their brows relax, their crying stop, and their heart rate drop.

Jones admits to wondering why parents weren’t there doing the cuddling more often but she found out the hard way. Her youngest grandchild was born deaf and brain damaged as a result of a virus his mom contracted during pregnancy. Now Jones knows “life happens and you can’t sit by a bedside for three weeks,” especially when, as in her grandchild’s case, mom’s C-section and toddler at home limited her NICU time. Knowing her baby was in Jones’s hands when she couldn’t be there herself gave the mother “a great sense of relief.”

Retired carpenter Frank Dertz, 74, learned about cuddling from his daughter, a nurse at Comer. “It’s a blessing for me,” he says. “I get more out of it than the babies.”

Nancy Salcido, a cuddler at the Torrance Memorial Medical Center near Los Angeles, says it’s good practice; her two daughters are grown and she’s hoping to become a grandmother some day soon. She talks to the babies, gives them pep talks, tells them how her day has gone and makes such a difference her NICU nickname is the baby whisperer.

In Rochester, New York, one cuddler, a young man, volunteers as a way of giving back. He was born prematurely at the Golisano Children’s Hospital and returns to cuddle preemies with the hope they’ll have a happy, healthy outcome like he did.

Pat and Claire Fitzgerald have been cuddling preemies at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford for 16 years. Pat’s deep voice is said to be particularly soothing to the babies he cuddles and, because he and Claire have been volunteering so long, they can tell parents “scared to death” about the many happy endings they’ve witnessed over the years.

When asked if a hug is good medicine, Dr. Ronal Cohen says, “Absolutely.” Cohen, the medical director of the intermediate care nursery at the Packard hospital, recalls how mom’s hug is often the best medicine for the dents and dings of childhood and it works for preemies, too.

Cuddling not only soothes the babies, it reduces cortisol (a stress hormone) in their bloodstreams, oxygenates their blood, deepens their breathing. Their vital signs in general become stronger, they tolerate pain better, and body temperature stabilizes. All this good medicine may mean they can go home sooner, too.

Source: Tanner, Lindsey. “Cuddlers Soothe Babies Too Sick to Go Home.” ABC News. Mar 13, 2014. Web. Mar 18, 2014.