Cuddlers serve important function in baby care at Western Pa. hospitals
Sister Mary Kay Hammond will never know the name of the tiny, swaddled baby boy she recently cradled against her chest at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield.
She knew nothing about his parents, why he was hospitalized, where he will live or when he could go home. The only thing she knew was that the blond infant was alone in his crib and crying.
“His name doesn't matter, not one iota,” said Hammond, one of 15 volunteers with West Penn's Baby Cuddler Program. “The only thing that matters is that I hold him and make him feel better.
“Hey there, pumpkin,” she said softly to the squirming boy. “Is this better?”
The child settled against her chest and fell asleep.
Baby cuddling programs here and elsewhere are more than just cute photo ops for hospitals and retirees. They help cure sick babies, many of whom are born addicted to drugs and require lengthy hospital stays, hospital officials said.
“Holding them, giving them a warm body — it's important, and it works,” said Christina L. Westbrook, manager of West Penn's inpatient pediatric unit.
Research proves it: At West Penn, the average length of stay for babies suffering neonatal abstinence syndrome, which happens when the infants withdraw from narcotics, fell to fewer than 18 days last year from just over 26 days before the program began in 2009, Westbrook said.
“The results have been impressive,” said Dr. Giovanni Laneri, a West Penn neonatologist. “Holding a baby is essential and such a natural thing. It soothes the baby, lowers their stress levels and helps them heal.”
Hospitals all over the country enlist the help of volunteers when parents, for whatever reason, cannot be there to cuddle their infants. Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh has about 20 volunteers whose duties include but are not limited to baby cuddling. Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC has about 35 baby cuddling volunteers.
Magee's baby cuddling program began about 10 years ago when staff noticed an influx of infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome, said John Silipigni, the hospital's director of case management and social work. He attributed it to the closing of St. Francis Medical Center in Lawrenceville, which treated drug-addicted babies.
“The physical touching is very important,” he said. “It calms them down. These are babies that are particularly difficult to settle. They have a particular cry. When they're held, they relax.”
Not all infants cuddled by volunteers are born drug-addicted, officials said.
At Children's Hospital, forexample, volunteer Kathleen Ferno recently cradled a baby born three months prematurely because his mom had HELLP syndrome, which is similar to an extreme case of pre-eclampsia.
The baby, Peter Welnick, weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces when born, said Jamie Welnick, his mother. Though he has gained nearly 5 pounds, Peter will have at least another month of treatment at Children's.
“We're here every day, but we can't be here 24 hours a day,” said Welnick, 34, of the North Shore. “We're so thankful to have people like Kathleen here to comfort him, read him a book, just hold him when we can't. It's so important, especially for sick babies.”
Volunteers are carefully screened, receive extensive training and follow strict rules, officials said. They must pass FBI background checks — even nuns.
It's worth it, Hammond said.
“It's a wonderful experience that I never thought I'd have because I'm a nun and we don't have babies,” she said. “They give me more than I give them.”
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.