WATERLOO — As a grandmother of six, Connie Meyer knows a thing or two about cuddling babies.
She’s using those skills, along with some extra training, to help sick babies in UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
The hospital debuted its NICU Cuddlers program in early December, and Meyer is one of eight volunteers who spend time snuggling some of the hospital’s tiniest and most vulnerable patients.
“This is my retirement dream job. Can I even call it a job? I’m tickled pink,” Meyer said.
So are the NICU staff.
“It’s all about human touch,” said Dr. Sussan Ndakor Mbi, a neonatologist in the Allen NICU. “Babies get to full feeds faster so they gain weight faster, maintain their temperature better and the length of their stay decreases.”
Cuddler programs have popped up at hospitals across the country, born of research on the power of human touch for healing and development.
The tactile, or touch system, begins to develop at just over seven weeks gestation and is fully developed by 24 weeks, according to research at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, making it “the most developed of the senses in the early neonatal period.”
Mbi was inspired to begin Allen’s NICU Cuddler program after one day seeing a baby alone in a room while nurses tended to other tiny patients there and the parents couldn’t be there.
“I thought that is not optimal for development. We have to do something about that,” Mbi said. “Nurses are very good at holding babies, but we are very busy in the NICU, and a parent might have to go to work.”
Mbi enlisted the help of Jenny Thorson, an OB/NICU clinical nurse educator. Thorson contacted two other UnityPoint hospitals with similar cuddler programs and got the ball rolling at Allen.
Through Allen’s volunteer services coordinator, Thorson found eight volunteers — four of them former nurses — to jump-start the program.
Cuddler program volunteers go through a strict screening process. Immunizations must be up to date, a weekly time commitment is required and volunteers must attend an orientation to learn how preemies differ from full-term babies.
“We are teaching them baby body language so they can read the cues,” Mbi said. “Is the baby frowning? Are they extending their arms or legs to push away? They must be held a certain way.”
Cuddler volunteers must scrub up before entering the NICU and wear special gowns while holding babies. A NICU nurse then gently hands a baby to a seated volunteer, who is not allowed to stand up or walk around while holding a baby.
Recently, Meyer, of Dunkerton, sat for several hours in the NICU holding twins.
“I volunteer about eight hours a week but I may consider more,” she said.
Thorson said the volunteer cuddlers have proved invaluable to the babies and the NICU staff.
“These are our babies and we want the best for them, she said. “The nurses are thankful. It allows them time to move on to critical things.”