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Snuggle science launches in St. Michael’s NICU

Toronto, December 7, 2015

By Kendra Stephenson

Tara Gomes
Carrie Hunt, a volunteer in the Family Support Program, cuddles a baby in the NICU. (Photo by Yuri Markarov)

Carrie Hunt rocks a newborn baby in her arms, singing softly. The baby sleeps soundly, swaddled in a pink blanket and hand-knit hat. Hunt is a volunteer with the Family Support Program in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, cuddling tiny babies every Friday afternoon.

St. Michael’s NICU launched the program at the beginning of November, where carefully selected volunteers cuddle infants when their parents can’t be present, help entertain siblings while their parents are caring for the newborn, and provide companionship to families during their time in the unit.

“In its short existence here, the program has been very popular with our staff, families and volunteers,” said Amanda Hignell, a social worker in the NICU. “Life doesn’t stop when you have a sick child and families can’t always be here – so our volunteers help and fill in wherever possible.”

The program, proposed and developed by Hignell and Karen Carlyle, a nurse practitioner, builds on the observed benefits of baby cuddling as well as research that has shown health improvements in infants resulting from a caregiver’s touch.

“This practice is already a standard of care in many U.S. regions,” said Carlyle. “Based on the evidence and success, St. Michael’s has also recently made the program a standard in our NICU – which is really exciting.”

   
Did you know?
Cuddling programs have been a standard of care in many U.S. regions since the 1990s?

The program runs seven days a week with a morning shift from 9 a.m. to noon and an afternoon block from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., rotating among 17 volunteers. During a cuddling session, volunteers stay seated while a nurse places the infant in their arms. Volunteers are encouraged to sooth, sing and read to the babies while holding them, but do not provide care.

“This initiative is different because the volunteers have physical contact with patients in an intensive care environment,” said Carlyle. “We worked closely with volunteer services and have been selective in the hiring process. Successful volunteers completed health screenings, a police background check, interviews and a half-day training session.”

Hignell and Carlyle also created an extensive orientation that incorporates a volunteer manual with simulations and situation-based scenarios. The training includes information on NICU terminology, common conditions, infant cues and infection control.

Hunt said the training was extremely helpful and taught her how to best interact with NICU staff, families and babies. Hunt, an aspiring occupational therapist with a Masters in rehab science, has always wanted to work with children, especially those with special needs.

Logo for the NICU Family Support Program “I have really enjoyed my experience with the program,” said Hunt. “Holding the babies, seeing their little faces react and eyes open is very special. I’ve seen a few babies go home already – it’s rewarding knowing you have contributed in some small way to their recovery. I feel like a part of the health team.”

There’s also a research component to the program, looking at babies experiencing opiate withdrawal. Data will be collected as part of an Infant Cuddlers Study to evaluate whether hospital stay lengths are reduced with cuddling from volunteers in the Family Support Program for babies who are in the NICU because of opiate withdrawal.

“Marginalized and vulnerable populations are an important demographic of St. Michael’s, recognizing that each family can have unique challenges,” said Hignell. “I think St. Michael’s is fantastic at coming up with solutions and innovations to provide compassionate care for all our patients – regardless of their circumstance.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.