The volunteers who cuddle sick babies when parents can't

Valley Children's Hospital volunteer cuddler Kerry Abbott rocks Grand Early, nearly 4 months old.
Valley Children's Hospital volunteer cuddler Kerry Abbott rocks Grand Early, nearly 4 months old. Photo: Getty Images

Kerry Abbott kisses the top of baby Grant Early's head and then freezes, apologetic. Her job is just to hold babies at Valley Children's Hospital in Fresno California, but Grant's adorableness is pushing her nurturing instinct into overdrive.

"I don't know if I'm supposed to kiss him," she says while rocking Grant in her arms last week. She looks to Grant's mother, Ginger Early, standing nearby, for an answer: "Mum?"

"You can kiss him," Early says with a smile. "It's hard to resist."

Abbott is a "cuddler" at the hospital - one of around 100 volunteers who take turns holding hospitalised babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

"It's nice to know someone is here loving him," Early says of Abbott before leaving the hospital for work last week. "Babies need touch. They need human touch and to feel loved. It helps them get better."

Ginger thanks Abbott for "sacrificing her time" to hold her baby, and Abbott smiles.

"It's no sacrifice," she replies.

This is Abbott's weekly dose of baby time. Her motivation to become a cuddler: "No. 1, I don't have any grandchildren - no, that's No. 2," she says with a laugh.

Although she wants grandchildren, ("There's an order in there," she adds with a giggle - a message directed at her two daughters) she says she'd be a volunteer cuddler even if she had grandchildren. Comforting infants in need has become her "passion."

It's a win-win-win-win for babies, parents, volunteers and nurses alike.

Lynne Meccariello, unit support supervisor of the neonatal intensive care unit and a liaison for the hospital's volunteer services department, describes the cuddling program as providing "developmental care and comfort to babies when their parents can't be there."

Meccariello says holding a sick baby reduces pain and provides warmth, and the cuddler encourages "self-soothing" - children's ability to comfort themselves when they aren't being held.

Stacie Venkatesan, director of neonatal services for Valley Children's, says the comfort of cuddling helps premature babies grow because they spend more time sleeping and less time awake and fussy, which burns more calories and limits their growth. Human touch also promotes emotional development through socialisation.

"Having it be a nurturing, more calm environment, that really promotes health and growth for these very small children," Venkatesan says.

Volunteer cuddler Shirley Redman says the program helped her fulfill her dream of rocking babies in retirement. She has five grandchildren but they're teenagers now, so it will be some years before she might be able to cuddle great-grandchildren. In the meantime, the baby-loving Redman is getting her fix as a volunteer cuddler.

"I've always wondered if it's more healing for me or for the babies," Redman says. "I think it's both."

There are volunteer cuddlers in the neonatal intensive care unit from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. Parents can opt out of receiving a cuddler for their baby, but most are happy they are there, Meccariello says. Cuddlers also leave cards at the babies' cribs that tell parents who cuddled their baby each day and for how long.

"We love our cuddlers," says Valley Children's nurse Shayla Norwood. "We would not get through our day without them. These babies need to be loved and they need to be held, and we can't clone ourselves. We can't hold them all day, so they help us do that."

Abbott drives down to the hospital from Oakhurst every Wednesday morning to cuddle babes.

"It brings so much comfort to them that can't be found in a shot or an IV," Abbott says of the cuddling. "It's been amazing to me how quick they respond to cuddling when they aren't at their best."

The cuddling likely helped Grant in his healing. The baby boy was discharged from the hospital on Monday after healing from a nerve injury he suffered during birth that left parts of his body temporarily paralysed. Grant was connected to breathing and feeding tubes for the majority of his nearly four-month stay in the hospital.

During one of his last cuddling sessions at Valley Children's, Abbott cooed and hummed and talked happily to little Grant as he sat on her lap on a chair facing a window as morning sunshine streamed in.

"To sit here and comfort a child and bring them some peace," she says, "it fills my heart."