Volunteer Cuddling Program at Intermountain Medical Center NICU Helps Newborns Grow Stronger Through a Healing Touch

Hospital volunteers who complete NICU training can volunteer as newborn cuddlers..

The Intermountain Medical Center NICU is using a volunteer newborn cuddling program to help offset early trauma and potential developmental delays in their tiny patients. It’s aimed at soothing premature infants ranging from tiny preemies, to larger, full-term babies, as well as infants suffering from maternal drug-use withdrawal.

Research shows the benefits of cuddling newborns can’t be understated. One recent study found that human touch plays a major role in the progression of infant neurodevelopmental function. Another showed that distressed infants who received less physical contact in a newborn intensive care unit had slower brain maturation.

“Human touch affects the long-term physical, behavioral, social, and cognitive development of these babies,” said Jennifer McCullough, a registered nurse in the Intermountain Medical Center NICU. “As a result of therapeutic touch, infants better tolerate pain, have improved sleep, cry less, have more stable heart rates and temperatures, experience better weight gain, and spend less time in the hospital.”

Parents usually want to spend as much time as possible with their babies in the overwhelming environment of the NICU. But babies may be in the NICU for as long as three months — and jobs, family demands, and other responsibilities take them away.

Cuddler volunteers are specially trained to interact with NICU babies during times when their parents can’t be with them at the hospital — and knowing they’re available gives parents a sense of extra comfort.

“Just as we, as adults, receive comfort through touch, infants experience the same release of endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin,” McCullough said. “Newborns who are withdrawing from maternal drug use are often especially irritable and can be difficult to console. The NICU cuddlers allow these babies to receive the valuable interaction of human touch and a little extra TLC.”

The NICU volunteer coordinators at Intermountain Medical Center have trained about 16 volunteers so far. The cuddlers provide only therapeutic talk and touch – they don’t feed, change diapers, or walk around with the babies. They simply hold them, read to them, or quietly sing to them. The work the cuddlers do helps preemies grow faster, so they can go home to their families sooner.

NICU cuddlers go through extensive classroom and bedside training. They strictly comply with hospital handwashing, infection control, and confidentiality policies.

Intermountain Medical Center’s cuddlers are required to pass background checks, have all their required vaccinations, and be compassionate, soft-spoken, and reliable. During their training, cuddlers learn about brain development, anatomy, infant development, and baby-holding techniques ranging from typical holding and rocking to a method called containment, which involves gently placing a hand on a baby who’s receiving a medical procedure.

“In the high-tech atmosphere of the NICU, it’s wonderful to have the human presence of our sweet volunteers, sharing their time and touch with our tiny patients,” McCullough says. “The nurses appreciate an extra set of hands to hold and comfort babies when parents can't be at the bedside. We love seeing our volunteers embrace that responsibility.”

Cuddlers at Intermountain Medical Center must meet these requirements:

  • They must be 18 years old or older
  • They must be a current hospital volunteer and need to fill the regular weekly four-hour shift other volunteers fill
  • They must have at least 80 hours of service as a volunteer at Intermountain Healthcare
  • They must be able to fill shifts of two or three hours holding babies in the NICU
  • They must complete the NICU training

The Intermountain Medical Center NICU, which has 48 bassinets located in 12 private or semi-private rooms organized in four patient care pods, offers the most advanced level of newborn care available in the Intermountain region, along with services designed to make the unit more comfortable for moms, dads, and families.

A new program designed to help the smallest patients in Intermountain Medical Center’s Newborn ICU builds on what researchers have verified and what new parents have long known: Cuddling newborns makes them stronger and healthier.