St. Michael’s NICU volunteer cuddlers care for fragile babies when their own families can’t

Hospitals all over Canada are reaching out to St. Michael’s for advice on how to set up their own cuddling programs.

Early in the morning, in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of St. Michael’s Hospital, a nurse hands a tiny, crying bundle to a volunteer named Kelly Appleyard.

In moments, the baby’s distressed cries turn into a soft whimper, and then she is quiet.

During the week, Kelly works as an insurance executive. But on Saturday mornings, she is a baby cuddler, part of a simple but very effective program that’s helping St. Michael’s address the fallout from the city’s opioid crisis. Volunteers in the NICU hold and soothe babies whose families either are not available to provide care, or simply need a break.

“Often, the babies we see who are experiencing opiate withdrawal have had a rough start,” says NICU social worker Amanda Hignell, who co-created the program with nurse practitioner Karen Carlyle. “Mom may have been homeless or struggling with addiction. She may be on an opioid maintenance program such as methadone, or affected by chronic pain.”

Typically, when parents are not able to care for their child and there are no other family members available, the baby is taken immediately into the care of Children’s Aid – so at the time when the infant needs human contact the most, no one is there to provide it.

What’s more, infants exposed to opiates in utero can experience painful withdrawal, a condition called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). These babies may also be born prematurely, with low birth weight, compounding the complications.

Back in 2015, recalls Amanda, “we had a few babies who were in withdrawal. We also had a few babies who were being treated for other medical conditions in the NICU, and the nurses just didn’t have enough hands.”

That’s where the volunteers came in. Amanda and Karen had heard about a NICU cuddling program developed in the United States, and they decided it was time to try it at St. Michael’s.

“We sent out a notice to the hospital’s volunteers, and we were bombarded with hundreds of people saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I want to do this,’” Amanda says.

Soon the program was running eight hours a day, seven days a week.

St. Michael’s is one of the few hospitals in Canada with a dedicated perinatal addiction team, so it’s the ideal place to research best practices in treating NAS. Last year, Amanda and Karen, along with St. Michael’s chief of pediatrics, Dr. Michael Sgro, and addictions specialist Dr. Suzanne Turner, published a study showing that babies who received cuddling from volunteers recovered more quickly and spent 20 per cent fewer days in the NICU than those who didn’t. The program has been so successful that it is now the standard of care for all NICU babies whose parents are unwell or need some help.

Now hospitals all over Canada are reaching out to St. Michael’s for advice on how to set up their own cuddling programs.

Kelly volunteered after seeing a story about the program on TV. “I just thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. I have to do this. It was calling my name,’” she says. “These helpless little babies are vulnerable: they need love, affection and the power of touch.”

And so, every week, she looks forward to her Saturday-morning shift.

“When the nurse hands me the baby,” she says, “the baby usually falls asleep pretty quickly. And then I am overcome with a profound sense of calm and connection, my entire focus shifts to this little miracle, and all the daily stresses of life just don’t matter.”

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