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Volunteer Cuddlers Bring a Special Touch to the NICU

By on 04/16/2018

When Meryl Silver retired from her job as a college counselor, she knew she was not the kind of retiree who pictured herself spending a lot of time sitting in a rocking chair. One day in Fall 2017, she read a newspaper story about a program geared at recruiting volunteers for the neonatal intensive care unit at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. Their job: to cuddle often medically fragile babies.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the job entails a good deal of time sitting in a rocking chair. And it can be challenging work.

She recalls one baby who was simply inconsolable. Silver was trying to feed her, but no baby will eat unless it is calm—and this baby just wouldn’t calm.

“It was frustrating,” she says. “The nurses were looking out of the corner of their eyes. After a few minutes, they’d say, ‘Let me help you a little’ or ‘Let me suggest this.’ Or ‘Have you tried to hold her chin?’ Just tips that I wouldn’t have known. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘You’ve given it a great shot, but I’ll take it from here.’ No hard feelings. The nurses are always a second away.’”

Because of the opioid epidemic in the city, some infants are very difficult to soothe as they go through the process of withdrawal.

The Human Touch

Fortunately, most babies are easy to soothe—or they just come that way, content to lie back in Silver’s arms and just be rocked. Silver, like all other cuddlers, knows she brings something special to the experience. “Sometimes you just to sit and rock and hold them and do nothing, but that is what the nurses know they want to have,” she says. “To me that’s what it’s all about, just to be able to do that—to touch their cheek and let them know someone is holding them and stroke their head and let them know they’re not in their bassinet. It might be only 45 minutes, it might be an hour, but just offering that human touch is what it’s all about.”

NICU nurse manager Maryann Malloy and Ellen Goldberg, manager of volunteer services

Long before the opioid epidemic, Einstein has had specialized volunteers in the NICU. The idea goes back to the 1980s, explains Ellen Goldberg, manager of volunteer services. In its early days, the program recruited grandparents to rock babies who were long-term patients of the NICU. “The grandparent cuddling program was more of a support for parents who couldn’t always come down to the NICU because they might be caring for other children at home,” she says.

In those days, NICU nurse manager Maryann Malloy adds, the technology didn’t exist that would allow parents to take their babies home earlier, particularly if they had respiratory problems. So the “grandparent rocker” program existed for the babies who could be in the NICU up to six months. “Then it kind of morphed into where we are today,” she says.

Today, thanks in part to recent publicity about Einstein’s cuddler program focusing on opioid babies, says Goldberg, there are 27 volunteer cuddlers dropping by for four-hour shifts at all hours of the day.

It ought to be said that cuddlers at Einstein—who no longer need to be grandparents—are often put to use cuddling children who are not withdrawing from opiates. “We have one baby who’s 14 days old, and he’s here for 21 days of antibiotics. We have some low birth-weight babies who are on the launching pad to go home. We have some who are a couple of months old. They don’t want to be asleep,” Malloy laughs. “They’re looking around going, hello, who’s going to talk to me now?”

Melisse Weber is another volunteer cuddler. She has no children of her own (though within her family she has a reputation as the resident baby whisperer), but many newborn infants in the Einstein NICU count on her infant soothing skills. She volunteers along with her sister Rachel Pavis, a part-time on-air guest on QVC.

A professional voice and piano teacher, one of the things Weber does to calm NICU babies is sing to them. (Andra Day’s “Rise Up” is a favorite.) She’s become proficient in the art of calming them. A prerequisite, she says, is this: You have to be calm yourself.

“Sometimes you can’t get them to take a bottle,” she says. “You have to try 6,000 different ways, and if you get frustrated, then they get frustrated. They feel your energy. You have to have that confidence because a baby can tell.”

Not for Everyone

Cuddling is not for everyone, says Meryl Silver. “We had two training sessions, and I think a lot of people were starting to think, ‘Oh, I really have to commit to days and times, and I have to do this every week,’ and they started to back off a little.”

The task can also be emotionally demanding, says Pavis. You have to have compassion, she says, but because cuddling is so involving on a personal level, “you have to be able to leave it in the NICU.”

The importance of cuddlers can’t be understated, says Malloy. Cuddlers free up nurses to do the more formal patient care aspects of their job. “It’s a win-win for everyone,” she says. “It’s a win for the people who want to give back, and it’s a win for us.”

As helpful as cuddling is for newborns, it also holds rewards for volunteers.

One benefit for Pavis is that it helps set an example for her children. “That’s really big for me,” she says. “I’ve spent countless hours into volunteering for their school activities, and now they see me doing this. They come home from school and they ask, ‘How are the babies?’”

Silver also finds cuddling fulfilling in a way that other volunteer opportunities might not be.

“Obviously I don’t speak for the whole world because so many people would not choose to do this,” she says, “but it’s like I could never imagine. I could be 89 and holding a little one. I think it’s so valuable on so many levels.”

Photos by Wes Hilton

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