When Carol Skrysak’s daughter gave birth to premature triplets, she got a months-long, inside look at how preemies are cared for in the NICU. Besides the exceptional care she witnessed on a daily basis, one other thing stood out to her: Some of the babies’ parents were unable to spend as much time holding their babies as they would like.
Skrysak saw how parents often struggled to balance work and the needs of their other children with their desire to spend as much time as possible with their baby in the NICU. Some parents may live outside of the city where their baby is being cared for, making it more difficult to visit on a daily basis. In other cases, a baby might be in foster care and have limited family visitation.
So, when Skrysak returned to her home in San Diego after visiting her daughter, she contacted the NICU at a local children’s hospital and asked: Can I come cuddle the babies?
“It’s the highlight of my week,” says Skrysak, who cuddles babies for a few hours every Friday morning. “Even if they just sleep the whole time, they know someone is holding them.”
NICU-cuddling has become a popular way to volunteer in recent years thanks to some viral cuddling action. Remember the “ICU Grandpa” who stole our hearts?
Skrysak says she might hold one baby during her entire volunteer shift or a few different babies—it all depends on what is needed that morning.
“A lot of times, I’ll just walk around and if there’s a baby crying or uncomfortable, I’ll ask (a nurse) if they’d like me to cuddle them,” she says.
Babies benefit greatly from human touch, particularly as it relates to their brains, bodies and immune system. Dr. Jerry Schwartz, medical director of neonatology at Torrance Memorial Medical Center near Los Angeles, told CBS News that positive physical interactions can enhance brain growth.
The benefit “at the most superficial level” is obvious, he said. “A baby is crying, mum’s not there, the nurse is busy with other sick babies, and it’s an unpleasant life experience to be crying and unattended to, and, voila! A cuddler comes over and the baby stops crying.”
The support it provides for parents at such a challenging time is critical, too.
“When parents come in and I’m holding their child, they’re so appreciative,” Skrysak says. “I just feel terrific when I leave. I feel like I’ve really helped someone, and I feel like I’m giving the babies a good start.”
By now, many hospitals with NICU units have cuddler programs in which volunteers are trained, background-checked and immunized before they can begin. To volunteer, contact your local hospital and inquire about their cuddler program qualifications.