Susan Kirksey stepped past the babies tucked inside isolettes. The soothing Brahms’ Lullaby sweetly spilled from a mobile hanging over little Carter Bennett’s crib. There were no cries on this recent spring morning inside Pod 2 of the neonatal intensive care unit at Akron Children’s Hospital.
It’s a floor where the area’s sickest babies are brought for a chance at life, a place where parents pray that their swaddled infants will grow up to pester their sisters, become teacher’s pets, get scolded for sneaking a kiss from the little red-headed girl under the bleachers.
While the NICU is a place of hope, it can also be frightening. That’s why Kirksey, and nine other volunteers like her, have been handpicked to do little else than cuddle fragile newborns. The program, which began at Children’s in January and is expected to expand, is aptly named Neo-natal Cuddlers.
Because parents need to sleep, are ill themselves, have other children to attend to, or work — often saving their parental leave until their baby comes home — the cuddlers are beloved by parents, explained hospital spokeswoman Laurie Schueler.
“He loves being held and I can’t hold him while I’m at work,” said Carter’s mother, Tyanna Bennett. “I know he’s being taking care of when I’m not there and that they are doing the right thing. I don’t have to worry so much.”
But there are also other reasons why the cuddlers are so badly needed.
“In Summit County we have an epidemic-proportionate amount of drug withdrawal babies. We try to provide them comfort,” said Marybeth Fry, NICU family care coordinator, who quickly noted that Carter is not a drug-addicted infant.
Babies who are born addicted are very irritable, as their brains are sending out messages that they need the drug and it’s not available any longer.
“Providing comfort rather than more medication,” Fry added, “helps them … get through the process.”
The cuddlers in the NICU have volunteered at the hospital in other capacities before being tapped for this sweet duty. That means their background checks have been done, immunizations are up to date and the staff is familiar with them.
“We even shadow them to see if they are able to do certain things, like transferring a baby [when a nurse is busy] from its crib by themselves without disturbing all of the equipment that the child is attached to,” explained Fry. “It is a very select group.”
Soothing Baby Carter
In Pod 2, there is a registered nurse for every two babies. When Kirksey entered the room, nurse Abbey Soles helped ease Carter, born prematurely on Dec. 20 weighing about 2 pounds, from his small crib.
“You ready, buddy?” Soles asked the baby, who has grown to tip the scales at more than 8 pounds. “He loves, loves, loves his pacifier.”
Remembering some of the words from a children’s book, Ten Sleepy Sheep, that she had read to her grandchildren, Kirksey whispered the words to Carter. He responded by opening his eyes and sucking more fiercely on his binky.
“He likes the attention and, developmentally, that’s good,” Soles said.
Cuddlers, including Peggy McClusky of Lake Township and Dorothy Graham of Lawrence Township, agree that holding babies is the best job in the hospital. And while it seems logical that a volunteer might wonder if the baby in her arms will live to see his first birthday, Graham said it’s the complete opposite.
“We think positive. These babies are getting the best treatment they can get anywhere and the hospital has a high percentage of success. They go home and grow,” Graham said. “And we have a lot … who come back years later and see the nurses and doctors who helped them.”
Babies endure much pricking and probing while in the NICU. So it’s only natural that they might withdraw from human touch. That’s why it’s important that a lot of cuddling takes place.
There can be long-term effects, too.
“The testing procedures that we do here can affect their neurodevelopment in school age. So you always want to try to get as much positive touch to hopefully counteract some of the negative things that we do,” said neonatologist Dr. Jennifer Grow, who specializes in the care of newborns. “I’m not sure that you can say that having someone as a cuddler hold your hand is going to make your school time better. But we know that the more tests that we do to the babies … when they get to school they are more prone to learning disabilities and attention issues because their pain threshold has been adjusted at an early age.”
Doctors try their best to conduct multiple tests together, thereby reducing the number of times a baby is touched in a negative way.
“Any baby who is getting that positive touch, the comfort and the cuddling, isn’t expending calories on being upset,” added Fry.
After about an hour of cuddling, the sleeping Carter was placed back in his crib. A group of stuffed animals rested on a shelf near his crib, where the little boy was covered with a blanket adorned with miniature ducks and frogs.
As he was settling in, another baby’s cry seeped into the room from down the hall. As if it were instinct, Kirksey’s eyebrows raised. Cuddler to the rescue.
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.