Friday, April 15, 2016

Volunteers lend a hand with baby cuddle program

COZY CUDDLES: Cole with his cuddler Branley

Comfort at the bedside – or the bassinette – doesn’t always come from a doctor or a nurse in MGH nurseries.

For three hours a week, it could be an MIT student offering an embrace to a newborn in need or a Boston grandmother soothing a premature infant, quietly singing from a rocking chair. These volunteers are two of the more than 40 “cuddlers” at the MGH, part of a robust program benefiting babies and parents.

Started in 2011, the cuddling program aims to “fill in those gaps of time when a parent might not be able to be at the baby’s side,” says Alexa O’Toole, RN, program coordinator. Cuddlers help nurture babies who need to stay in the hospital for extended periods of time, including infants requiring extra medical attention or those awaiting foster care or adoption.

But what is distinctly different from other hospitals, says O’Toole, is volunteer training in a newborn’s physical, emotional and psychological cues. “We incorporated an occupational therapist into the program to teach volunteers about the development of preemies and newborns,” says O’Toole. Right now, the MGH is the only Boston-area hospital offering this type of education to nursery volunteers.

That teaching comes in handy even for longtime volunteers like Karen Branley. On a recent afternoon in March, Branley speaks softly to her swaddled charge, but later notices his splayed fingers, “one sign of stress,” she says. She adjusts her arms to keep him feeling safely contained, and little Cole is more content within a matter of minutes. At the end of her shift, Branley leaves a required “cuddle card for Mr. Cole’s mom,” she says, letting her know her baby was held and cared for while she was away at work.

“Babies gain weight quicker and they have shorter length of stays because of this program,” says O’Toole. “It is a weight lifted from parents’ shoulders.” 

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