Gail Hill sits and coos softly as a nurse hands her a delicate baby boy. At three pounds, he is too small and too ill yet to go home.
The 65-year-old grandmother of four gently rocks him in her arms and whispers words of comfort. Quiet beeps echo from the various machines around them, and soon the baby is fast asleep.
He is one of dozens of infants Hill has had the privilege to hold in her eight-plus years as a volunteer with the UCI Health “cuddler” program. The program trains volunteers to interact with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UC Irvine Medical Center during times when parents are unable to be with their infants.
One of only two Level III NICUs in Orange County, the unit provides comprehensive care for critically ill and premature infants. It’s also a longtime sponsor of the annual March of Dimes “March for Babies” fundraiser to support research and programs to help moms have healthy, full-term pregnancies.
While NICU medical staff provide state-of-the-art care, volunteer cuddlers help with the babies’ need for touch.
“Human touch is more powerful than people realize. When preemie babies are held, they feel secure and loved, and it also helps them to grow and recover from their physical problems,” says Hill. “It’s satisfying to know I’ve played some small part in such a tiny person's life.”
Cuddlers are carefully screened and must complete health and background checks, along with training and orientation. Their training includes:
- Understanding federal patient privacy regulations
- Infection control
- Hospital codes
- Safety precautions
“We always wash our hands before and in between holding babies, and we never feed them, change them, bathe them or walk around with them. A nurse hands you the baby while you are sitting and the nurse takes the baby from you while you are still seated,” Hill says.
Parents also must provide permission before a cuddler can hold their baby. The service is provided to parents at no charge.
“Of course, not every baby will be eligible to be held,” explains Barbara Arbour, who oversees the cuddler program. Extremely young infants or those with certain medical conditions may not be able to tolerate more than a light touch.
So, in addition to parental consent, the baby’s doctor is also consulted — and only after the baby has been assessed by the occupational therapy, physical therapy, nursing and Child Life specialists. “We work a lot with the physicians to determine which babies can receive the extra support our cuddlers provide,” says Arbour.
The human touch provided by cuddlers helps with a baby’s social, emotional and physical development. It builds trust, reduces stress, and can even improve weight gain.
“Touch is so important to a baby’s development. It stimulates both their body and their brain,” Arbour says. “We try to educate parents about the importance of touch and how, when they can’t be with their baby, we have trained volunteers who can provide this part of their baby’s care.”
Learn more about the Cuddler Volunteer Program ›