When it comes to infants, many claim to be baby whisperers, but only a few truly have the magic touch.
For over 35 years, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago has been helping infant patients and their families through a volunteer cuddler program. When families are away from the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, volunteers comfort infants by giving them a good cuddle.
"We saw a need: the fact that we could not expect families to be here all the time and the babies had needs 24/7," said Judy Fredericks, NICU cuddler program coordinator and wellness liaison for the Rush Center For Clinical Wellness. "The whole idea of families can't be here all the time, and we understand that, and we know they feel terrible when they can't be here all the time. But, we want to lessen that by letting them know that we have someone that has trained, is educated, is screened."
After undergoing extensive training, these volunteer cuddlers step in to hold, rock, sing, read and just talk to the little ones. Interactions that studies show help reduce infant stress, pain, and aid in improving their overall physical health.
"We had a brilliant psychologist here who talked about how to talk to babies, that you should ask them questions," Fredericks said. "'How are you today? What would you like to have for breakfast?' Just kind of ask them questions in a joyful tone. That really does stimulate parts of the brain. That helps their development."
Like many hospitals around the country, Rush temporarily suspended its cuddler program during the COVID-19 pandemic. It resumed after health officials signaled it was safe.
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"We brought back our eight core cuddlers — the ones who have been here 25, 30 years — and then slowly added on our student cuddlers," Fredericks said.
“I was nervous coming back after the pandemic," said Thea Christou, volunteer cuddler at Rush University Medical Center. "I sat down with this little guy, and he starts up and I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh... deep breaths. We're good. We're good.' So we both kind of calmed down, and then it was back to just snuggling."
Part of what makes the cuddler program at Rush special is that many of the volunteers are parents who have had kids in the NICU themselves. Using their experiences and cuddling skills, they’re able to provide parents with a sense of relief and security.
"My second son was a NICU patient," Christou said. "When he was about 10, I heard about the program and said, 'I want to go. I need another baby to cuddle.' I can still remember what it was like to have him here and a toddler at home. You want to be both places at the same time. So I thought, 'Oh, here, it's a baby fix for me and a service for the babies.'"
Parents like Christou can also offer insight and empathy.
"When I do interact with the parents, I can say, 'My boy was here, and he's the tallest guy in the family now, and it turns out fine,'" Christou said.
They're words of encouragement that mean the world to parents waiting to take their little ones home.
“It relieves guilt for me because I think I always have to be here, so when I'm gone, it makes me feel good and at ease because he likes to be held," said Krystal Ball, a mother. "It alleviates some stress for me."
As the program pushes on post-pandemic, the volunteers say they hope to continue showing just how powerful a good cuddle can be for an entire family.
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