Avery Wooley entered the world 3 ½ months early in March 2014 and spent the next 234 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth. For a long time, she was too fragile to be held (except by her parents and the nursing staff, of course), but once the preemie reached about 5 ½ months, she became more aware of her surroundings and fussed when she’d been lying in her bed long enough. Kelly, her husband, Shawn, and other family tried to be with Avery all the time, but the Wooleys eventually had to go back to work and grandparents couldn’t be there round-the-clock, so volunteers stepped in to rock and snuggle Avery.
Volunteer snugglers, who have been specially trained to perform NICU TLC, perform the essential task of tending to the babies emotionally when parents and family cannot during hospital stays. Volunteers hug, kiss, soothe, swaddle and sing to premature and sick babies.
It’s that human voice, touch and interaction that’s so crucial to support these babies’ development and growth. In fact, research shows that babies who are cuddled regularly in the NICU have shorter hospital stays.
Sounds like the perfect cure for baby fever, right? Cuddling someone else’s newborn?
Headlines make it seem so easy to become one: NICUs across the country were desperately seeking volunteers to cuddle babies because there was a sudden surge in the number of babies born into opioid addiction.
Turns out, it’s actually pretty challenging to find one of these programs in need of baby snugglers. First, it’s one of the most coveted positions, so finding open opportunities proves difficult. In fact, supply frequently exceeds demand; waiting lists can be several dozen names deep. Second, cuddlers are often tenured volunteers who have donated years of service to a hospital. And third, there thankfully hasn’t been this enormous spike in the number of babies born with drug addictions—in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, anyway.
“[It’s true.] There are limited opportunities in our NICU, [but] we really have a need for [volunteers to spend time with kids] of all ages.” says Susan Lakey, director of volunteer services at Children’s Health in Dallas.
This is true for most area hospitals. Volunteering is about more than cuddling newborns. “We do have that opportunity, but it’s an all-encompassing volunteer position,” explains Kim Pinter, volunteer services manager at John Peter Smith (JPS) Health Network in Fort Worth.
“It’s not a guarantee you’ll have the opportunity to hold a baby on every volunteer shift,” Pinter continues. Supporting the staff means stocking and organizing linens, folding gowns, answering phones, greeting visitors, making admission and discharge packets, preparing blankets and hats for newborns, reading to a baby or, when needed, holding one.
For babies born prematurely, volunteers can cuddle them after they’ve been moved out of an incubator bed. “It’s good stimulation to be held and sang to,” explains Raquel Armstrong, NICU manager and nurse at JPS. “[Babies] need that stimulation for their development.”
Full-term babies experiencing drug withdrawal, however, can usually be held from day one. “They need that comfort,” Armstrong says. “They need that soothing for pain control. You only want to medicate them so much.”
Plus, NICU nurses are typically responsible for the care of two or three babies each shift. “If you’re tied up feeding another baby and your drug withdrawal baby wakes up [in pain], it just breaks your heart,” Armstrong says.
At times like this—and when parents return to work, have to spend time with a sibling or just take a few hours for themselves—cuddlers are invaluable.
“At first, [having a volunteer soothe Avery] made me feel like a failure,” Wooley reveals. “I felt really guilty that I couldn’t give her what she needed. Once I got over myself, it was so reassuring to know that these incredibly caring volunteers were available to spend time with her [when I couldn’t].”
This article was originally published in 2017, with updates made on May 15, 2019.