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Cuddlers serve important function in baby care at Western Pa. hospitals

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Volunteer Kathleen Ferno of Oakmont holds five-month-old Peter Welnick in his hospital room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Peter was born three months premature at 1 pound 12 ounces and has required constant care and observation in the hospital. The help of a volunteer like Ferno who will cuddle, soothe, and stimulate the baby allows Peter's parents to have a break to go home to the North Side, let their dog out and sleep.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Volunteer Kathleen Ferno of Oakmont holds five-month-old Peter Welnick in his hospital room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Peter was born three months premature at 1 pound 12 ounces and has required constant care and observation in the hospital. The help of a volunteer like Ferno who will cuddle, soothe, and stimulate the baby allows Peter's parents to have a break to go home to the North Side, let their dog out and sleep.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Five-month-old Peter Welnick looks up at volunteer Kathleen Ferno of Oakmont as she coos and talks to him in his hospital room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Ferno, who runs a Montessori pre-school, volunteers to hold, soothe, and provide developmentally appropriate stimulation to babies in the NICU. Done correctly, this kind of attention can give parents a break and can lower the stress levels of a baby that needs to conserve energy in order to heal and grow.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Five-month-old Peter Welnick looks up at volunteer Kathleen Ferno of Oakmont as she coos and talks to him in his hospital room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Ferno, who runs a Montessori pre-school, volunteers to hold, soothe, and provide developmentally appropriate stimulation to babies in the NICU. Done correctly, this kind of attention can give parents a break and can lower the stress levels of a baby that needs to conserve energy in order to heal and grow.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - 'The minute I hold them, I love them,' says Kathleen Ferno of her time volunteering to hold and soothe babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Ferno holds five-month-old Peter Welnick in his hospital room in the hospital's NICU in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. The developmentally appropriate stimulation she provides serves to decrease stress levels of the child and allow it to be held and nurtured when parents cannot be present or need a break.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>'The minute I hold them, I love them,' says Kathleen Ferno of her time volunteering to hold and soothe babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Ferno holds five-month-old Peter Welnick in his hospital room in the hospital's NICU in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. The developmentally appropriate stimulation she provides serves to decrease stress levels of the child and allow it to be held and nurtured when parents cannot be present or need a break.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Photos of Peter Welnick and his family adorn the hospital wall in the room where he has been staying in the the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Welnick was born at one pound 12 ounces in October 2013 three months premature, and has spent his time in the NICU under observation since. When his parents cannot be there, Welnick is held, soothed, and stimulated by volunteers.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Photos of Peter Welnick and his family adorn the hospital wall in the room where he has been staying in the the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Welnick was born at one pound 12 ounces in October 2013 three months premature, and has spent his time in the NICU under observation since. When his parents cannot be there, Welnick is held, soothed, and stimulated by volunteers.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Volunteer Kathleen Ferno of Oakmont takes a deep breath as she becomes overcome with emotion while holding five-month-old Peter Welnick in his hospital room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. 'It completely solidifies me, it keeps my feet on the ground,' she says of volunteering to hold babies in the NICU. 'Life makes sense the day after I'm here.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Volunteer Kathleen Ferno of Oakmont takes a deep breath as she becomes overcome with emotion while holding five-month-old Peter Welnick in his hospital room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. 'It completely solidifies me, it keeps my feet on the ground,' she says of volunteering to hold babies in the NICU. 'Life makes sense the day after I'm here.'

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Sunday, March 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

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 ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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