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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Allegheny County adoption event joins 40 children with families
- Man’s death by runaway wheel on Route 28 ruled accident
- Newsmaker: Christopher W. Robinson
- Emergency personnel contain fire at Whitehall apartment complex
- Cyber dating abuse ‘common,’ Children’s scientists find
- Baltimore man killed in McKeesport crash
- WVU frat brothers charged with hazing pledges
- Portion of Parkway West will be closed for weekend work
- 6 shot at Clairton speakeasy; police seek suspects
- Newsmaker: The Revs. James E. Hunt and Sheila Johnson Hunt