The babies suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) were born to mothers who had opioids in their system. They are removed from their mothers soon after their birth and need special attention, including physical touch.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on October 16, 2019. It has since been updated.
Every 15 minutes, there is a baby being born in the US with opioid withdrawal, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. These children are removed from their mothers and end up in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where they need special attention, including physical touch. However, nurses alone are not able to make enough time for all the babies. Research (Association of Rooming-in With Outcomes for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis) has shown that staying close with their mothers or family, including cuddling, makes these babies less dependent on medication to wean off opioids. So, there are now positions created for volunteers to give the babies the affection they need as treatment for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).
A retired nurse, Vicki Agnitsch, who spent more than 26 years working in the NICU, told KCCI, "Touch is so important to babies. Without that, there would be failure to thrive." She added that the more cuddling and touch the children receive the fewer medicines they would require.
She is one of 22 volunteers at the Cuddler Volunteer program at Blank Children’s Hospital. She has been a part of it since its inception in 2011. The retired nurse said that the few hours she spends cuddling babies is "the best part" of her week.
"When they know someone else is touching them, it gives them that warmth and safety and security that they crave," she said. "They had that inside the mom, and then they come out into this cold, bright world. They don’t have that, so all of that swaddling, touch, and talk helps their development." She believes that the program can bring positive changes to their young lives.
Being a part of the cuddler program has come to be an in-demand part-time volunteering activity for many people. Most of the programs, such as the ones at UCI Health and Blank Children's Hospital, run full. It is expected that the cuddlers are at least 21 years of age, commit to a minimum of six months, have prior experience holding babies and/or work with babies and children, and a lot more.
UCI Health reported that cuddling helps children's emotional well being and helps babies maintain developmental and social milestones, such as self-esteem development, increased learning ability, and greater self-esteem.
University Hospital in San Antonio has had a cuddling program in its neonatal intensive care unit for several years, and among the volunteer cuddlers is an army veteran named Doug Walters. After serving in the Army for nearly 30 years, he was a software engineer. The retired man has now become a part of this fulfilling volunteer program. Earlier this year, he was caring for a child named Jonathan.
"Jonathan is supposed to be going to sleep, but we're having some challenges right now," Walters told Texas Public Radio. "He's three and a half months,” Walters said in February 2019. “So he's been a resident for a little while.”
"You can tell when kids cry because they're mad, or they're hungry, and (babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS) just...it's a very sad cry," he said. "It's just sad, because they don't understand what's happening, and they don't understand why things hurt. They just don't understand," he added.
A nurse named Laurie Weaver, who has worked in the NICU for 27 years, said that babies with NAS are her favorite patients. She said, "I just feel like they were given a rough start, and I just like holding them and comforting them." Weaver said that there is an increasing need for volunteers as more and more babies are born with the syndrome every year in Bexar County, Texas, because of which only nurses wouldn't be able to cuddle the babies.
"We can have three and four babies assigned to us a day,” Weaver said. “They feed every three hours, and we don't always have time to hold them, so to have someone to sit there and hold them for you and talk to them...that is wonderful."
The cuddler programs across the country can be a fulfilling activity for retired individuals as well. Not only would they be helping the children but themselves too.