Volunteers in the NICU unit at Saint Boniface General Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba, have the best job title ever: they get to be baby cuddlers.
The hospital launched the Baby Cuddler program to give premature babies the skin-to-skin contact they need to grow, while giving their parents some much-needed help when they can't be with their children.
"At times, the babies can be really fussy, but after a few minutes, they start to relax," one volunteer, Lucette Parent, said. "You can tell that they are breathing easier. Just from the body contact, they settle down and often fall asleep."
Parent's experience isn't just anecdotal: A study published in 2014 in the journal Biological Psychiatry showed that babies—specifically preemie babies in the NICU—cuddled from birth had better sleep habits and were more attentive than those who weren't cuddled.
In 1996, Ruth Feldman, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bar-Ilan university in Tel Aviv, put together the study with the intention of seeing how kangaroo care (KC)—the practice of holding babies as much as possible—can influence child development. Feldman separated 73 premature babies into two separate groups: One that received "standard" treatment, meaning no extra holding, and the other that received 60 minutes of maternal cuddling each day for 14 days.
"Today," Feldman says, "withholding KC from one group of preemies would be an ethical issue. [In 1996], though, the benefits weren't proven, so we just asked one hospital if we could introduce it there."
She conducted the test again in 1998 at a different hospital with additional preemies. Feldman and her team then reevaluated the babies at 3, 6, 12 and 24 months old and then when they were 5 and 10 years old. In addition to better sleep habits and focus, the babies showed better stress-management skills at age 10 when they were faced with anxiety-inducing situations (like public speaking).
"Every mammal has to be cuddled and in close proximity with its mother in the first days and weeks of life," Feldman said. "This builds up the bodily systems that are sensitive to a physical presence." This is especially true for humans. "We think of prematurity as a proxy for maternal denial, since babies are outside the womb and away from their mothers for months," she said.
The amazing part of the study is that the babies in the KC group only had an hour of extra attention a day for the two-week study period, meaning that the baby cuddling doesn't need to be a schedule-disrupting activity.
So, being a baby cuddler is one volunteer activity that can have a substantial impact on a child for life. The best part? You don't have to pack up and move to Winnipeg. NICU units in hospitals are increasingly offering baby cuddling programs to ease the burdens on parents and staff.
And the benefits you'll receive are immeasurable. "I love babies, so when I heard about the program, I said, 'Sign me up'," Parent said of volunteering at Saint Boniface's NICU unit. "When I come in for my volunteer shift, I know I am going to give out a lot of love."