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NICU Programs Benefit Premature Babies and Their Parents

Jeanne McCarthy is known around the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center as the "Chief Cuddler."

"I wish they wouldn't call me that," she says humbly. "I am a cuddler, but I also help manage the cuddling program."

McCarthy earned the nickname by being one of the most active volunteers in the NICU cuddling program. The program provides volunteer "cuddlers" to interact with premature babies during times when their parents can't be at the hospital with them.

"Sometimes babies are in the hospital for as long as five months. It's impossible for parents to be here 24 hours a day," notes McCarthy. "Some have other children at home, and some parents may even have to return to work so they can take their maternity leave when their baby goes home. We hold the babies, give them attention and human touch to calm them, so their energy can be used solely for growing and the parents can know there's someone loving their baby when they can't be here."

Studies show tactile stimulation - cuddling, massage, and human touch in general - helps improve weight gain in newborns, especially premature babies still in development. Her colleagues say Jeanne, a former nanny who holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a masters in social work, was meant to work with newborns.

"Jeanne has an amazing way with the babies," says Erin MacIntosh, an Occupational Therapist at BIDMC who helps train the NICU volunteers. "She provides them with the necessary sensory stimulation and warmth that premature babies need in the NICU. Jeanne is calming and soothing to both the babies and their parents."

The cuddlers don't feed the babies, change diapers or walk around with the babies. They just hold them, read to them or sing songs. The work Jeanne and the other volunteers do helps preemies grow faster, so they can go home to their families sooner.

"It's such a happy occasion when a baby gets to go home to be with his or her family," says Jeanne. "And there's always a new baby that needs cuddling."

But Jeanne's work doesn't end there. She's also spearheading a new program at BIDMC that matches families of NICU newborns with families that have already been through the experience. The NICU Parent Connection offers peer-to-peer mentoring as NICU families make the often difficult transition from hospital to home.

"Bringing a baby home from the NICU is a very happy time for families, but it can also be a very stressful, anxiety-filled time for them. They've been in the NICU for a long time," notes McCarthy. "Parents are accustomed to monitors and nurses keeping track of the baby's health and they can often feel isolated once they get home. It can be a difficult time."

The goal of the NICU Parent Connection is to match current families whose babies are transitioning from hospital to home with graduate mentor volunteers whose baby has been home from the NICU at least one year. The mentor family's role is to provide support to the current family during their transition home.

As best possible, the families are matched with mentors whose babies have had similar diagnoses. Each graduate mentor volunteer goes through a training program before being matched. Through phone calls or e-mail, the graduate mentor in the program provides weekly support for current families recently discharged.

"We have one mentor mom whose daughter was in the NICU for five months and went home on oxygen. We connected her with a mother who also had an early preemie who recently went home on oxygen. It can be a difficult adjustment to have a baby at home with oxygen and the graduate mentor mom is able to understand and appreciate what the other mom is going through," recalls McCarthy.

The program, launched in January 2010, now has more than eight mentors and dozens of families have benefitted from the program.

"I'm so lucky that I can cuddle at almost any moment during work," says McCarthy. "It's a real treat to step out of my busy day, pick up a crying NICU baby and immediately feel him relax, stop crying and snuggle right in."

Then she adds, "It makes me feel good to know I'm helping the babies, but the truth is, they're giving me peace and relaxation too. "

The NICU Cuddling Program has no shortage of volunteers! There are currently 16 active cuddlers and the waiting list for positions that occasionally open up is about 18 months long.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted September 2011

Contact Information

Terry Morgan, Program Coordinator
Volunteer Services
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Gryzmish 210
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215

Contact Information

Department of Neonatology
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215