man playing guitar with granddaughter

Cuddlers help preemies to thrive

April 14, 2016 | UCI Health
NICU cuddler holding premature infant

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.”

Cuddling credentials

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.

Cuddling benefits

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 ›

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Evelyn Lopez
September 02, 2016

I am very interested in the volunteer position for cuddlers

Aliona Telechi
December 14, 2016

I am a RN myself with experience in telemetry and recent ICU. I am interested in transition into NICU and the cuddler program will give the opportunity to interact with babies and hopefully one day soon I will be a NICU RN.
Thank you

Debbie feffer
January 18, 2017

I'm very interested in working with this program to be a cuddle to babies that would benefit from it.

UCI Health
January 19, 2017

Hi Debbie,

That's great! The Cuddler Volunteer Program is currently closed for volunteer applications, but please check back, as they reopen several times a year:

Thank you!

Michele McFaul
January 19, 2017

I am extremely interested in becoming a cuddlers volunteer. Please contact me at the stated email with more information. Thank you so very much!

Sheree Arkyns
January 24, 2017

I am a retired Probation Officer (nearing age 60) who has 36 years of probation experience professionally dealing with addiction. Both of my sons were in NIC Units due to my pregnancy complications. After my first son was in NICU at Hoag Hospital and the other son in St. Joseph's Hospital NICU, I have wanted to give back to others by volunteering in a NICU. It was very comforting for me to know as a parent someone would cuddle or tend to my infant when I could not be present. Please let me know what I need to do to move forward.

Kyle McCory
January 24, 2017

I am extremely interested in becoming a cuddler volunteer for babies. Please let me know what I need to do to complete any necessary procedures to make this possible m! Thank You so much!

UCI Health
January 25, 2017

Hi Sheree and Kyle,

Thank you for your interest in the Cuddler Program. Applications are closed right now, but open up periodically. Please check back on the Cuddler Volunteer website:

Thank you!

Carola Savvas
January 25, 2017

Good Morning;
I am very interested to be part of the cuddler volunteer program. Please let me know what are the next steps to be participating as soon as possible.

Thank you,

Carola Savvas
January 25, 2017

Would like to participate on the baby cuddler program

UCI Health
January 25, 2017

Hi Carola,

You can learn more about the Cuddler Program here: The program is full right now, so please check back.

Mary Palazzo
January 26, 2017

I understand the need and benefit of warm cuddling and speaking & singing softly to babies/children - it is comforting and healing. Please contact me if there are any needs for a nurturing cuddler!

Mary Palazzo
January 26, 2017

I understand that cuddling and speaking/singing softly to a baby/child is very comforting, soothing & healing. Please contact me if you need a nurturing cuddler as I would love the opportunity.

February 02, 2017

Hi how are you doing today
My name is Shado.
I would like more information on becoming a volunteer in your cuddle program at your NICU.
Thanks have a great day

UCI Health
February 02, 2017

Hi Shado,

Thank you for your interest. Please visit the Cuddler Program page for current information about applications:

Thank you!

Jane Lavender
February 06, 2017

I really want to do this!!!!