For the more than 500,000 premature babies born in the U.S. each year, a human touch can have a powerful impact on healthy growth and development. Thanks to a Huggies’ No Baby Unhugged grant – one of only seven given nationwide – Chester County Hospital (CCH) has created a volunteer newborn-hugging program.
This initiative will provide much-needed physical interaction for newborns in CCH’s neonatal intensive care unit and pediatric unit that can help make their transition from the hospital to the home quicker.
Research shows that ample human contact aids babies in their development of good clinical outcomes. Interventions, such as holding, rocking, and soothing babies, as well as singing and talking to babies, support weight gain, reduce length of stay, improve brain development, and in the long term, enhance the development of trusting relationships. It will especially benefit premature babies and infants withdrawing from maternal drug use as well as those admitted with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), said Stefanie Steinberger, DPT, lead physical therapist in the NICU.
“Our pediatrics team helps a lot of babies with NAS. These babies are unable to self-soothe due to the painful effects of drug withdrawal. Cuddlers will be invaluable for keeping these babies calm and content while they are going through something so difficult,” Steinberger explained. “In addition, we now know that exposure to stressful or painful situations adversely affects the development of the premature brain. Our cuddlers will provide a calming technique called containment to help these premature babies tolerate difficult procedures, which will improve their development in the future.”
Volunteer cuddlers will help when parents or family members are not present to hold or calm infants. “We serve some low socioeconomic populations who may not have reliable transportation to and from the hospital to see their babies,” said Susan Cacciavillano, BSN, clinical manager in the NICU. Parents are also taught the benefits of the program.
The plan to implement a cuddler program has been in the works for some time. In September 2016, Cacciavillano and Steinberger met with Penn colleagues from Lancaster General Health to talk about their cuddler program and how to bring it to Chester County.
“All of our training practices, guidelines and implementation plans stemmed from Lancaster General. Their team was instrumental in getting our program off the ground,” Cacciavillano said.
Cuddlers played a large role in the hospital’s current NICU expansion, which began in December 2017. The unit will double in size and feature 14 bed spaces, private and shared rooms, as well as hybrid model rooms that allow space for parents to stay overnight with their infants. In preparation for the renovation, the NICU was moved to a temporary unit on the opposite side of the hospital to protect the infants from the noise and vibration of construction.
“Having cuddlers in place before the transition to the temporary NICU was important. They were instrumental in creating smooth transitions for the babies,” Cacciavillano said, adding that “the cuddlers will be equally as valuable when the renovation is complete later this year and it is time to transfer the babies to the new, expanded space.”