Hospitals can be overwhelming and scary places for people of all ages. The shiny floors, sterilized spaces, and constant hum of machines and activity are a far removed from the quiet comfort of our own homes.
For some young lives, the hospital is all they know. And even with toys, welcoming decor, and the best of care, a NICU can still use the warmth and personal touch of a cuddler to help their tiny patients.
Cuddling programs have become popular in many hospitals. Physical touch and cuddling is incredibly important to a baby’s well-being and development, and it’s beneficial for all parties involved.
There’s usually quite a bit of screening and training that volunteers have to go through, but it’s an excellent way for retired individuals to volunteer, especially if they have no children or grandchildren of their own, or are far from them.
The NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital is one of the hospitals that has a NICU Cuddler Program.
“The Cuddler Program helps parents feel a little bit better knowing that their baby will be comforted and soothed when they are not here,” said a child life specialist at the hospital named Christy Dowd.
“These babies’ brains are like sponges, and they’re learning more and more each day,” she told the NewYork-Presbyterian. “When they are receiving different medical procedures and constant negative stimuli, it’s extremely important for their social-emotional development to have that comforting touch in between.”
And an integral participant in that program that offers comforting touch is 81-year-old Joan Hart.
Hart never had kids of her own, but she’s cuddled plenty of babies and been “practically” a grandmother to many, according to some thankful parents. The “Grandma Cuddler,” as parents and staff have come to know her, spends a good chunk of her time in the NICU attending to their tiny charges.
“We’re not taking temperatures,” she told NewYork-Presbyterian. “We’re not drawing blood. We’re not showing them how to move. We’re just a love bug. That’s it. And what better thing to do than to bring a little bit of joy and a kind touch?”
She’s a welcome respite from the poking and prodding that these little ones need, though “cuddling” varies from case to case. For some babies, that means simply holding their hand. For others, it’s patting their back. Not all babies are ready for actual sit-down-and-cuddle time, so Hart makes sure she’s aware of each child’s needs.
“My ears are tuned in when I walk in that door,” she said. “I look around and say, ‘What’s the cause of the crying?’ Sometimes it’s mom changing a diaper or nurses or doctors fussing with them, but if no one’s there and they’re fussing, that’s when it’s cuddler to the rescue!”
“When I hold them, sometimes I hum or sing — tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” or Frank Sinatra’s love songs — or I talk to them. I tell them, ‘You have to eat and sleep so you can get big and strong.’ I talk to them about their future. I say, ‘You think a pacifier’s good? Wait till you see ice cream or lollipops or pancakes.’”
“I like to say I cuddle them and they cuddle me back,” Hart continued. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
“There was a period of time in my life when I thought I’d marry someone and have lots of kids, but that didn’t happen. I don’t have children, but I feel I have angels all over. That’s what they are to me — my little angels.”
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