The Baby Cuddlers

Close human contact is a vital ingredient in a child’s development.

It’s important especially for babies who are born premature or who are too sick to go home from the hospital.

For those babies, recent research shows the benefits of a loving touch extend well beyond infancy.

Rady Children’s Hospital handpicks volunteers who provide babies with that all-important physical contact.

In the neonatal intensive care unit at Rady Children’s Hospital, volunteer Valerie Kalas gives Jasmine Rivera some love.

“Hello Baby Jasmine. How are you today? How are you today? Look how big you’re getting,” Kalas coos.

Jasmine is a little too fragile to hold right now, so Kalas gently strokes her hands and feet. Jasmine was born six weeks premature and will have to stay in the hospital for a little while longer.

“Good that you’re sleeping. That’s how you grow. You’ve got a little growing to do, don’t you?” Kalas says to the sleeping baby.

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Volunteer Valerie Kalas spends five hours a week cuddling premature and sick babies. Research shows the beneficial effects of close personal contact can be seen 10 years later.

Katie Schoolov

Volunteer Valerie Kalas spends five hours a week cuddling premature and sick babies. Research shows the beneficial effects of close personal contact can be seen 10 years later.

Studies show touching and speaking softly to babies reduces infant stress and can lower their heart rate. Parents can’t always be at the hospital as often as they’d like. And nurses are busy tending to babies’ medical needs.

Rady Children’s Hospital has 30 volunteer baby huggers like Kalas who try to pick up the slack.

In a study published last August in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers examined the impact of different levels of human contact on premature babies.

Those who received contact had better cognitive skills, more organized sleep and better response to stress.

Neonatologist Richard Song said it all begins in infancy.

“Baby’s brain is continually maturing, developing," Dr. Song explained. "And having that sensation of having a loving, caring person holding them, definitely contributes to their developmental outcome.”

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse Lutchi Abraham said it’s important to establish a physical bond at birth, even if babies are sick.

“The doctors in the delivery room and the nurses in the delivery room, they give the baby to the mom, have that skin-to-skin experience, before they even take the baby and bring them to the hospital for the ICU," Abraham said.

The NICU at Rady Children’s Hospital can care for 42 babies. And not all of them are newborns. Maxi McKenzie is 7 months old. He was born with his intestines outside of his body and has suffered through six surgeries.

Kalas likes to give him plenty of attention.

"I have on occasion spent four hours with the same baby just rocking and cuddling, and sometimes that’s what they need," Kalas said as she held Maxi on her lap. "And it brings a lot of joy to me, and a lot of comfort to them.”

Kalas found out about the cuddler program when her son was born. He spent two months in the NICU.

“When I took him home and got him situated, I thought the least I can do is come and volunteer, and help hold babies, as well as work with the parents, too, who are experiencing an incredibly stressful time in their life having a baby in the NICU,” Kalas explained.

Giselle McKenzie is Maxi’s mom. She comes to the hospital every day, but with a 9-year-old at home she can’t be at the NICU around the clock. McKenzie said little Maxi has been through a lot and she likes knowing that volunteer baby huggers are there for him and the other babies.

“I know that he’s happy and feeling like he’s home. And that makes me feel more comfortable," McKenzie said.

Maxi has never left the hospital. Nonetheless, all of the cuddling he’s received hopefully will hold him in good stead for years to come.

McKenzie said she can’t wait to take him home and give Maxi even more hugs.

“The first thing I want to do when I get home is to sleep with him and cuddle and give him lots of kisses,” she said.

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