Human touch can mean real healing power for newborns largely confined to an incubator in a hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
To that end, the new Baby Cuddler program at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip has become immensely popular in just a few short months.
These volunteers devote their time rocking, cradling, cuddling and singing to premature babies in an effort to help soothe and comfort them.
“A lot of times our parents either have other children at home or, because the preemies can be here for so long, they go back to work and save their time for when the baby comes home,” said Laurie Mastandrea, the NICU nurse manager at Good Sam.
That can mean a lot of time alone for these already fragile infants, as the nurses get busy.
“The program lets the cuddlers show them a lot of loving, and the baby just responds better developmentally,” Mastandrea said.
Right now, Good Samaritan has about 19 babies in the NICU Intensive Care Unit with 15 volunteers working different, rotating shifts. The volunteers are community members who want to help out the nurses and show love to the little ones who can’t go home just yet.
“Parents really appreciate it because there are times where they can’t get here,” Mastandrea said, “They want to know that their baby is getting contact.”
Jan Quinn of Copiague, the first volunteer in the program, started helping out in the NICU last November and said she loves coming in every day.
“I like helping the nurses,” she said. “They are really hard workers – they’re busy so if I can help keep the babies quiet until the next feeding, it’s rewarding.”
“Sometimes the nurses are so busy that they can’t always give that contact to the babies,” Mastandrea said. “So the baby cuddlers come in, they cuddle them, they’re not crying and they’re much happier.”
Sylvia Anderson of Lindenhurst said when she cuddles the babies, she feels that their demeanor is much calmer.
“Sometimes you’ll hold a baby and they’ll just sleep… I love it,” she said.
The program officially began in November 2018 after months of planning.
“This was something that our NICNU nurses wanted to provide as a standard of care to all of our patients,” said Brittany Colasanto, Good Sam’s manager of volunteer services. “We wanted to make sure everything was right before kicking it off the ground.”
The volunteers have to abide by a set of rules and standards in order to be a cuddler. They also go through training beforehand and can only cuddle certain babies who are considered more stable without a lot of tubes.
“It’s just a really nice program to help the babies thrive,” she said. “We have a waitlist now because we’ve received so many calls about the program … The community has really stepped up to volunteer with this.”
From what we could find, similar cuddling programs are available at three other hospitals on Long Island and NYC.
“Eventually what we want to do is expand this program to include the newborn nursery if they have any border babies that are staying there,” Mastandrea said. “We’d also like to expand the program to pediatrics — and to any baby who needs cuddling.”
Wearing their signature green vests, the cuddlers couldn’t express enough how much they love volunteering. Sometimes they don’t want to let go.
“Some you just want to hold a little tighter than others,” Anderson said. “It’s an amazing program.”
Those who are interested in volunteering can email Good Sam’s manager of volunteer services at Brittany.Colasanto@chsli.org.
Top: Jan Quinn of Copiague cuddles a newborn baby girl in the Good Samaritan Hospital NICU as a volunteer cuddler. (Credit: Julianne Mosher)