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The Gift of Cuddles: Tanner’s Unique NICU Program Provides Comfort to Region’s Tiniest Patients

Several times a week, Barb Stayton, a retired investigator for the Georgia Department of Community Supervision, passes through the swinging glass doors at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton to begin her shift as a volunteer at the hospital.

Tanner volunteer holding NICU infantBut while some volunteers at the hospital give back by providing directions to visitors at information desks or staffing the gift shops, Stayton is one of a small but ever-critical group of volunteers who have a task that would be the envy of nearly everyone in the hospital: She cuddles babies.

The Sally and John Francis Tanner Neonatal ICU — the new Level III neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton — provides care for the region’s tiniest, most medically fragile patients. And while these babies require around-the-clock medical supervision, they also have the same needs as any newborns, including around-the-clock affection.

Cuddling helps provide a soothing, physical connection to newborns, who may be in the NICU for a variety of reasons from issues stemming from withdrawals and growth and development complications to being born prematurely or as multiples, such as twins or triplets.

Tanner’s volunteer cuddlers program allows specially-trained volunteers to work with the hospital’s maternity center nurses and doctors to not only help provide nurturing care to vulnerable infants, but also provide additional support to the unit.

“Being a cuddler is very enjoyable to me because I know I am helping,” said Stayton. “I get to see those beautiful babies, whether I get to hold them or not. They’re so precious. But I also get to help the nurses, too. They’re often so busy, so if I can do anything to make sure that they have everything they need to care for those babies — even if it’s just making sure that the formula and equipment is always stocked — then I’m happy.”

Cuddlers support the unit in a variety of ways — including ensuring that there is never a shortage of cuddles.

According to Ruth Travis, RN-C, IBCLC, the NICU nurse manager, all babies in the NICU require a special level of care; however, not all babies are able to be held, so it’s always a doctor or nurse — as well as the infant’s parents — who decide when and if a baby needs a cuddler.

Travis said that many of the babies who typically need cuddling are babies who are facing health challenges like neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. Babies who were exposed to opiate drugs while in the mother’s womb can be born dependent on the drug, just as the mother was, and the baby is born experiencing the symptoms of withdrawal.

For these babies, especially, the comfort of a cuddle can be an amazing therapy.

Tanner nurse and volunteer caring for NICU babyTaylor Pope, RN, a registered nurse who cares for babies in Tanner’s NICU, echoed Travis and said babies who are struggling with NAS tend to do much better when they are being cuddled.

“Our volunteers are really helpful when we have a baby experiencing a withdrawal condition like NAS, because most of the time they require a lot of undivided attention,” Pope said. “They want to be held, so when we can’t sit and hold them for long, they fuss and get upset.”

Cuddlers only hold babies when families cannot. Often, parents live close enough to Tanner’s NICU to come and hold their babies themselves — and cuddlers often spend time with them as they do.

If there aren’t any babies who need a cuddler’s attention, volunteers lend their support in other ways, including supporting nurses, helping to clean equipment or stocking items such as linens and blankets or supplies like gloves, diapers and baby formula.

Jeanette Wheeler, director of volunteer services for Tanner, led the way in bringing Tanner’s cuddler program online. She said that in developing the program, Tanner wanted the role of the volunteer cuddler to act as a resource for the NICU.

“Tanner is part of Georgia Hospital Association (GHA), so we reached out to other hospitals in the state that have similar programs to see how they were implemented,” Wheeler said. “We wanted to look at their policies, standards and processes to help us build a program here. We also knew we would need volunteers who would be committed and who would able to build relationships with the nurses and medical staff as well as families, so we looked internally to the volunteers the health system has currently.”

Before becoming a cuddler, volunteers must complete a series of trainings with Natalie Oja, RN, BSN, CLS, a women and children’s services nurse educator at Tanner. The training covers everything from safety and security policies to infection prevention standards and direction on how to hold babies and when to notify nurses if the baby shows signs of distress.

Additionally, Tanner’s cuddlers also learn about equipment such as monitors, breathing machines and feeding tubes. They also must have additional immunizations before beginning work in the NICU.

Tanner’s cuddlers work on a schedule and typically spend a few hours a week in the hospital’s maternity center lending a hand in whatever ways they can.

Tanner team members in Tanner's NICUFor Stayton — part of a team of five volunteer cuddlers who also help by checking on mothers and families in the department to make sure they are comfortable and have what they need — being a part of this program is a joy and commitment, but it also hits close to home.

Several years ago, she and her partner fostered a baby girl who was in a Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS) program.

“She was a beautiful child. She was in foster care and we took her out of the hospital at 29 days,” Stayton said. “I know how much of a difference we made in her life. She got adopted but, in a way, this program gives her back to me.”

Stayton keeps a video of herself and her former foster daughter on her phone. In the video, they’re playing together, giggling wildly. As she watched the video, her eyes gleamed. It’s a reminder of how much the girl meant to her and why she is so proud to be a part of this program at Tanner.

“Who doesn’t want to just sit and hold a baby? It’s wonderful. There are so many babies out there who just need somebody to love them. They deserve love. That’s why,” she said, smiling at the video. “That’s why.”

To learn more about how to become a volunteer at Tanner, visit tanner.org/volunteer.