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Kylie McConville

People Are Taking Time Out Of Their Day Just To Cuddle With Babies In The NICU

PUBLISHED ON 03/13/2014

People do the darnedest things — and this time around, we love 'em for it. Apparently, strangers are blocking off time during their busy days just to hang out, cuddle and coo with babies that are too tiny or too sick to go home with their parents.

The latest "trend", which is hitting the NICU at University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital and other hospitals all over the country, includes strangers offering a simple, supportive "service" for newborns and their families. They're called "Cuddlers" and parents typically must consent for their babies to be a part of cuddling programs. Cuddlers also have to undergo background checks and training before beginning their "jobs" in the NICUs. At Chicago's Comer Hospital, the training program includes lessons on swaddling, maneuvering around IV lines and intro tips on sanitation and hand-washing.

And it's not just strangers off the street who are signing up for the lucrative role as Cuddler. In Rochester, New York, one of the hospital's Cuddler was actually a premature baby himself, born years ago at Golisano Children's Hospital. A child life specialist at the hospital says that the man "just wants to come and give back."

Kathleen Jones, who spends her time as a Cuddler at the Chicago hospital, told, "You can see them calm, you can see their heart rate drop, you can see their little brows relax. They're fighting so hard and they're undergoing all this medical drama and trauma. My heart breaks for them a little bit." Not sure about you guys, but reading that quote reaffirms all the love I have for people. Sure, humanity might be horrifying and depressing as hell most days, but when we're at our best, we're remarkable.

Jones says that the feel-good vibes are contagious. "They say that I look so in love with them when I'm there, but I cannot NOT crack an ear-to-ear smile whenever I pick that little guy or girl up."

Though there's only a handful of research that supports the benefits of snuggling up together, the reports on the benefits of human touch are well-known — and respected. Research recently noted that a mother's touch actually works to improve development in premature babies and supplementary studies have similarly concluded that skin-to-skin and kangaroo care is just as beneficial to mom as it is for baby. And Dr. Jerry Schwartz says that you don't exactly need a scientific study to back up the superficial benefits of having an adult in the room to soothe a crying baby. "It's obvious," he says, adding, "A baby is crying, mom's not there, the nurse is busy with other sick babies, and it's an unpleasant life experience to be crying and unattended to, and, voila! A cuddler comes over and the baby stops crying."

One woman, Nancy Salcido, has been a Cuddler at Torrance Memorial Medical Center near Los Angeles for more than a year. "I just kind of hold them close to me ... and talk to them, sharing my day, or give them little pep talks. One of the nurses has nicknamed me the baby whisperer."

Frank Dertz heard about the Cuddler program through his daughter in Chicago, who's a nurse at one of the participating hospitals. "It's quite a blessing for me. I get more out of it than the babies, I think," he said.

And though Cuddlers are clearly smitten with the work they do, the program could not have come at a better time for new mothers. Erica Steadman, a second-time new mom, has a C-section delivery and her daughter, Evelyn, had to spend three weeks in the NICU at Comer's hospital because she was born deaf with brain damage, the result of a virus her mother contracted before her delivery.

For Erica, the Cuddlers provided peace of mind and protection.  "She was being held and loved and watched over," she said. "I felt a great sense of relief from that."

What do you think of the Cuddler program?