How vol­un­teers are help­ing in­fants in need one cud­dle at a time

How an army of vol­un­teers is help­ing to heal sick ba­bies— one cud­dle at a time.



hum of ac­tiv­ity in­side South­lake Re­gional Health Cen­tre’s neona­tal in­ten­sive care unit (NICU). Nurses speak in hushed voices as they check Iso­lettes (self-con­trolled in­cu­ba­tors) that house the hospi­tal’s tini­est, most del­i­cate pa­tients— ba­bies too sick, too weak and too small to go home. The soft glow from the Iso­lettes bounces through the unit, which is kept warm, peace­ful and dimly lit—it’s pur­posely womb-like and puts new­borns at ease.

Con­nor and Kyle are two-week-old twins. Their mother, Krissy, has tucked the boys into her shirt; they look like lit­tle joeys, heads pok­ing out of her tank top. Ly­ing on Mom’s chest, the ba­bies, born at 32 weeks, in­stinc­tively si­dle up to each other. Kyle, who’s more alert than docile Con­nor, puts his tiny arm around his brother as they set­tle in for skin-to-skin time.

The boys, now free of the masks and wires that helped them breathe, are a lucky pair. Krissy, a mom of four, has help at home with her two tod­dlers, al­low­ing her to be at the New­mar­ket, Ont.–based hospi­tal so she can feed and hold her sons, giv­ing them the snug­gling all ba­bies in­stinc­tu­ally crave and need to thrive.

But there are times when nei­ther she nor her hus­band can make it to the NICU. That’s when Krissy— like other par­ents who can’t be with their ba­bies— re­lies on a small team of care­fully se­lected, highly trained vol­un­teers to cud­dle her boys. “It’s a huge con­so­la­tion for a par­ent to know that if you can’t be there to hold your baby, some­one else is there to do it for you, she says as her twins drift o to sleep.

“Ba­bies need to be held—not only to re­duce stress, sta­bi­lize heart rates and re­duce pain but also to sup­port their brain development,” says San­dra Payne, South­lake’s nurse ed­u­ca­tor for NICU and pe­di­atrics.

Five years ago, Payne, who’s been a nurse for al­most 20 years, got a call from a col­league in the

NICU ask­ing her to come hug a fussy wee one whose par­ents were not at the hospi­tal. Payne be­gan jump­ing in to baby-snug­gle but soon re­al­ized she needed help to give these in­fants the attention they needed. It wasn’t long be­fore a light­bulb went o for her and her team: Aren’t there vol­un­teers who’d be in­ter­ested in com­fort­ing ba­bies whose par­ents can’t be at the hospi­tal 24-7? Payne and her team’s bril­liant idea sparked the cre­ation of a vol­un­teer cud­dle pro­gram that’s gain­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in hos­pi­tals across Canada. Now in its fth year, the pro­gram has a back-to-ba­sics ap­proach: It makes sure ba­bies are given much-needed hugs and snug­gle time by vol­un­teers when moms and dads aren’t near.

Payne de­cided to be­come a nurse af­ter her fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with cancer. “His nurse-prac­ti­tioner taught me how to do his in­jec­tions at home, and I picked it up fast,” she says. “He told me I should be­come a nurse.” hen Payne started her ro­ta­tions, she asked to be placed in the in­ten­sive care unit, but the spots were taken. “I was dis­ap­pointed when they put me in the NICU, but it took only two weeks be­fore I knew it was where I wanted to be placed per­ma­nently,” she says. “I knew it was where I could do the most good.” ar­lier in her ca­reer, Payne worked on the or­gantrans­plant oor at the Hospi­tal for Sick Chil­dren and then in the NICU at Mount Si­nai Hospi­tal in Toronto; now, she de­vel­ops and writes poli­cies based on best prac­tices to bene t South­lake’s neona­tal and pe­di­atric units. She also trains new sta and runs the neona­tal re­sus­ci­ta­tion pro­gram.

Payne was the lead in de­ter­min­ing the qual­i­ties that South­lake’s vol­un­teer cud­dlers must pos­sess and she de­vel­oped the vol­un­teer train­ing pro­gram. As a mother of three and a “mama bear” at work (nurses in the NICU are very pro­tec­tive of the ba­bies, she says), she favours non­smok­ers, folks who have a back­ground with kids, those who feel com­fort­able lift­ing and hold­ing an in­fant and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, emo­tion­ally strong in­di­vid­u­als with a thick skin—the NICU isn’t al­ways an easy place to be.

Hav­ing worked with the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Pae­di­atric Health Cen­tres to share guide­lines with hos­pi­tals in­ter­ested in im­ple­ment­ing their own cud­dle pro­grams, Payne says NICU vol­un­teers are putting the sci­enti cally proven ad­van­tages of touch into prac­tice ev­ery day. “There have been more than 00 stud­ies in the past 40 years about the pow­er­ful e ect touch has on ba­bies,” she says. “These stud­ies show how skinto-skin con­tact in­creases the development of es­sen­tial neu­ral path­ways, ac­cel­er­at­ing brain mat­u­ra­tion and al­low­ing ba­bies to spend more time in quiet sleep, which de­creases stress hor­mones.”

Be­ing held skin to skin can also re­mark­ably re­duce pain dur­ing pro­ce­dures—ba­bies cry less and ap­pear less ag­i­tated. Touch helps ba­bies self-reg­u­late, sta­bliz­ing their heart­beats and breath­ing pat­terns. “Be­ing held by a care­giver is a nat­u­ral, no-cost in­ter­ven­tion,” says Payne. “A baby cries, you pick it up. It’s hum­bling to see how e or­t­less it can be; I just want ba­bies to be held and be com­forted.” The proof is in the Iso­lette, where Con­nor, Kyle and the other cud­dled in­fants lie qui­etly, con­tent­edly and peace­fully.

“Ba­bies need to be held—not only to re­duce stress, sta­bi­lize heart rates and re­duce pain but also to sup­port their brain development.”

LEFT A vol­un­teer snug­gles a pre­ma­ture baby at South­lake Re­gional Health Cen­tre in New­mar­ket, Ont. BE­LOW Two-week-old pre­emies nuz­zle up to Mom, who’s com­forted to know that vol­un­teer cud­dlers will step in when she’s home car­ing for her other kids.

Cud­dle pro­gram founder San­dra Payne, a nurse ed­u­ca­tor for NICU and pe­di­atrics at South­lake.

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