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  • Writer's pictureRebekka Mikkola

An Overview of Volunteer Baby Cuddler Programmes

Each year millions of babies are born preterm, and many others are born to mothers with addictions. These babies require specialist care, often in neonatal intensive care units. In these settings, they may not receive much touch from either nurses or caregivers.

Yet touch is fundamental for a child’s development, especially at this early age. In a white paper published for the Canadian Association of Paediatric Health Centres (CAPHC), entitled, ‘The Power of Human Touch for Babies’, the researchers state that regardless of whether a baby is born full term or preterm, touch is essential for enabling them to achieve their full potential.

As such, many hospitals have created their own baby cuddler or infant rocker programs to care for these babies. We’d like to dedicate this blog to the wonderful work these cradle cuddler volunteers do and will answer some common questions below.

Is baby cuddling a real job? Can you get paid for it?

Yes and no. Baby cuddler volunteering is real. However, as it’s primarily volunteering, they aren’t usually paid jobs. Most of these NICU cuddlers work in hospitals, where a number of programs have been established around the world.

How many babies are born prematurely each year?

The WHO estimates that 15 million babies are born preterm around the world. While the figures vary depending on the source, Chester County Hospital estimates there are “more than 500,000 premature babies born in the U.S.” While in the UK, the charity Bliss, estimates that around 60,000 babies (equating to 1 in every 13 babies) are born prematurely.

What are volunteer baby cuddler programs?

All babies, including premature babies need holding and cuddling to survive and thrive. However, when a baby is in hospital for a long period of time, it may not be possible for the baby to get the affection they need from nurses or parents.

This is because parents might have external obligations such as returning to work, attending to their families and may even have their own medical needs. Sometimes it may be that family members just need to take some rest. Given that Nurses and doctors are often drawn away to other urgent tasks, babies may be left on their own for long periods of time.

In the US, there is also a growing issue of babies being born to mothers with addictions, such as those who use opioids. If these mothers are incarcerated or if they live too far away, they may not be able to get to the hospital on a daily basis.

This is where volunteer infant cuddler programs come in. Hospitals know that babies benefit from touch, holding, rocking, swaddling and cuddling. Numerous hospitals have therefore recruited a volunteer base of caring baby cuddlers to cuddle babies. This has been going on since the 1980s in some US-based hospitals.

In an article for Next Avenue, Lynne Thomson, NICU Nurse Manager at Saint Luke’s, explained that, “There are some parents who long to be with their babies, but can’t be here… So it gives them peace of mind to know that someone is going to be holding their baby. It feels good to know you have a village.”

What does a baby cuddler do?

The role of a baby cuddler is to help infants mature, attend to their emotional needs and allow them to leave the hospital sooner. The duties of a baby cuddler may include:

· Talking or singing to the infants

· Providing touch (cuddles, hugs, swaddling, rocking etc.)

· Reading to them

· Soothing, rocking and swaddling

The volunteer NICU cuddlers are typically supervised by a member of staff from the hospital. Baby cuddlers don’t change diapers/nappies or feed the babies.

What does the scientific research say about volunteer baby cuddling?

According to the CAPHC white paper, more than 600 scientific papers have explored the impacts of touch for babies. Touch can help with physical, emotional, behavioural and social development. Massage and gentle stroking has been shown to help regulate sleep and releases oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. Other benefits of touch listed in the CAPHC white paper, include:

· Pain relief

· Physiological stability

· More regulated sleep

· Weight gain and growth

· Reduced time in hospital

A 2019 study published in Paediatrics & Child Health, looked at the effectiveness of volunteer infant cuddling, for those babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome. The pilot study was carried out at St Michael’s Hospital, which launched a volunteer cuddling program in 2015. The study set out to examine whether infant cuddling could affect the baby’s length of stay. It found that the length of stay in the neonatal intensive care unit was reduced by 6.36 days, which allowed families to be reunited at home sooner and could also result in financial savings for the hospital. Positive impacts were also noted for volunteers, staff, infants and families alike. You can read more about St Michael’s infant cuddling program here.

A paper stretching back to 1990 and published in Neonatal Network, suggests that the improved wellbeing and reduced length of stay of infants is reason enough for hospitals to implement baby cuddling programs. The paper states, “Nurse researchers have identified the value of human touch and stimulation to the development of premature infants. Although the fragile premature infant may not always appear to respond overtly, the weight gain, and social and mental development of the cuddled babies give testimony to the effectiveness of human attention.”

Are infant rocking programs popular?

A 2017 BBC News article stated that hospitals in the US were “inundated” with applications to become baby cuddlers. From the research we’ve undertaken, this still seems to be the case as many programs are full. Some programs also have waiting lists, and we’ve come across waiting lists that are full for the next two years, and others which are closed to new applications.

That being said, there are a small number of hospitals looking for volunteers (although the COVID-19 crisis has led to many volunteer programs being suspended in hospitals). For the latest information, it’s best to check your preferred hospital’s current volunteering status.

Who can become a baby cuddler?

Each institution has its own set of requirements about who can become an infant cuddler. In some places such as Saint Luke’s Hospital, around 80% of the baby cuddlers are retired. But younger cuddlers are also welcomed.

How do I become a baby cuddler at a hospital?

Once you’ve found a hospital that is accepting cuddlers, you’ll need to go through the application and vetting process. If you’re accepted, you’ll receive training and immunisations (if required) and you may also have to volunteer in other departments to gain experience, before being allowed to cuddle babies. You can follow the journey of one baby cuddler on the Born to Kuddle blog.

Where can I apply for volunteer baby cuddling? How do I know if there are volunteer baby cuddling opportunities near me?

Hospitals tend to run their own individual baby cuddling programs. As such, it’s best to google your preferred area and see if there are any existing programs available (for example, “Volunteer baby cuddler program New York”). Or you could contact your preferred hospital directly and enquire as to whether they offer cuddling programs and how to apply. Each hospital will have its own unique application process to complete.

Is there a list of organisations that offer baby cuddling?

We’ve provided a few lists below of a small selection of places offering volunteer baby cuddling in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. To check if there are any programs in your area, it’s best to search online for the most current information.

Volunteer baby cuddler programs in Australia

· Children’s Hospital Foundation

· Lyell McEwin Hospital

· Northern Health

· Royal Hobart Hospital

· Sandringham Hospital

· The Women's Hospital

Volunteer baby cuddler programs in Canada


· Family and Children's Services Niagra

· Horizon Health Network

· Island Health (Victoria General Hospital and Nanaimo General Hospital)

· Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital

· Kids Can Fly

· Michael Garron Hospital

· North York General Hospital

· Sick Kids

· St Boniface Hospital

· St Michael's Hospital Foundation

· Terra Centre

Volunteer baby cuddler programmes in the UK

We couldn’t see any nationwide NHS baby cuddling schemes, but rather individual hospitals who offered programmes:

· Alder Hey Children's Hospital

· Great Ormond Street Hospital

Volunteer baby cuddler programs in the US

· Aurora Healthcare

· Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

· Beth Israel Lahey Health - Beverly Hospital

· Boston Medical Center (CALM program)

· Bryan Health

· Care New England

· Children's Hospital New Orleans

· Children's Wisconsin

· CHOC Children's

· Covenant Healthcare

· East Tennessee Children's Hospital

· Freeman Health

· Geisinger

· Golisano Children's Hospital

· Good Samaritan Hospital San Jose

· Harbor-UCLA Medical Center

· Henrico Doctors

· Indiana University Health

· Intermountain Medical Center

· Lenox Hill Hospital

· Lowell General Hospital

· Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford

· Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC

· Maimonides Medical Center

· Medical Center of Trinity

· Medical City Plano

· Mercy

· Miller Children’s Hospital

· New Hanover Regional Medical Center

· RMC Health System

· Rose Medical Center

· Sharp Mary Birch

· St David's Healthcare

· St Luke's University Health Network

· St Mary's Medical Center

· Stony Brook Children's

· The Children’s Home of Pittsburgh & Lemieux Family Centre

· The Woman’s Hospital of Texas

· Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

· UCI Health

· UMass Memorial Medical Center

· Unity Point Health (St. Luke’s)

· University of Chicago Medicine

· University of Utah Health

· USA Health Children's & Women's Hospital

· Valley Children's Healthcare

· Wesley Healthcare

In the US, Huggies also launched the ‘No Baby Unhugged’ campaign, whereby they awarded $10,000 to over 30 institutions offering baby cuddling. It’s therefore possible that some of these organisations may have ongoing programs:

· Alta Bates Summit Medical Center

· Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

· Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women

· Brigid’s Path

· Chester County Hospital

· Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

· Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston

· Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock

· Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters

· Children's Hospital of Wisconsin at Fox Valley

· Crouse Health

· Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children

· John Muir Health, Walnut Creek Medical Center

· Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center

· Loyola University Medical Center

· Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford

· Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital

· Nationwide Children’s Hospital

· Palm Beach Children's Hospital

· Palmetto Health Richland

· Phoenix Children’s Hospital

· Rush University Children’s Hospital

· Sanford Medical Center Fargo

· Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital

· Southern Illinois Healthcare Memorial Hospital

· Southern Regional Medical Center

· St. John's Regional Medical Center

· St. Vincent Healthcare

· Sutter Medical Center

· Tufts Medical Center

· UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Oakland

· UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, San Francisco

· University of Maryland Children's Hospital

Another resource is the volunteering section on the Born to Kuddle website, which has information on volunteering in separate US states.

Please note the above lists are not comprehensive, and other institutions may offer cuddling programs.

I’m a parent, how do I know if my baby is eligible for cuddling?

According to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, “Babies eligible for cuddling are typically 34 weeks or older, and “Level 2” patients, which means that they no longer require ventilator support (respirator or C-PAP) and are primarily in the “feeder-grower” stage. Ask your baby’s nurse if you are not sure.”

It’s therefore advisable to contact your doctor and enquire about your baby’s eligibility for cuddling, if they happen to be in a hospital that offers infant cuddling.

Do cuddle volunteers benefit as well?

Cuddlers may benefit from the release of hormones associated with touch, as well as from doing a good deed through volunteering. It’s been suggested that volunteering is a way of mitigating loneliness, improving self-confidence and can also make us happier.

What training is involved in becoming a volunteer baby cuddler?

Each hospital or institution will have its own individual training and orientation programme. As such, the training varies from institution to institution. In addition to completing training, some hospitals require volunteers to gain experience on other departments before commencing with baby swaddling. Contact your preferred hospital or visit their website to find out more about the application and training process.

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