Danbury Hospital launches 'Healing Hugs' for its most vulnerable patients

Hugs matter. And for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), hugs can change their lives. With the goal of delivering the highest quality care to every NICU baby, Danbury Hospital launched Healing Hugs, a new service where trained volunteer cuddlers provide comfort to babies in the Spratt Family Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

"A person's a person, no matter how small."

These are the words on the wall in the Dr. Seuss-themed hallway outside Danbury Hospital's NICU. The colorful and uplifting hallway leads into a bright and welcoming NICU where the smallest and sickest babies are provided lifesaving care. Danbury Hospital is one of only a few in Connecticut that has a Level IIIB NICU. Neonatologists, neonatal nurses, and respiratory therapists are available 24 hours a day to care for very small or very sick babies.

A NICU baby has a different newborn experience than a baby that goes home after they are born. Premature, low birth weight babies need to be in an isolette (a clear plastic enclosed crib that maintains warmth) until they are healthy enough to be in an open crib. NICU babies have checkups and tests often throughout the day and night because they are closely monitored by doctors, physician assistants, nurses, and respiratory therapists. Parents spend as much time as they can in the NICU with their babies. But many parents need to be home if they have other children, or they need to go back to work.

Evidence-based benefits of cuddling

Healing Hugs volunteer cuddlers are part of the NICU care team. They are trained how to effectively and safely console and hold babies.

First, NICU nurses confirm that a baby is healthy enough for a volunteer to visit. Then, the volunteer spends time with the baby and provides him or her comfort. For babies in isolettes, the volunteer will talk to them in a soothing voice. The volunteer can also give these babies a gentle, still touch, called a "hand hug". For babies that can be held, the volunteer will cuddle or hug them.

"We see it all the time," said Jeffrey Bartlett, DO, medical director of neonatology, Connecticut Children's and Western Connecticut Health Network (WCHN). "Babies that require respiratory support are tenuous. But when they are given human contact, their heart rate drops and their oxygen needs are reduced. We witness this happening not only during cuddling, but for hours later, even after being put down."

Cuddling is known to provide important health benefits to babies. Cuddling is a form of kangaroo care. Kangaroo care is when a parent holds their baby skin-to-skin on their chest. Kangaroo care keeps babies warm, regulates their heart rate, and helps them feel relaxed so they tend to eat and sleep better.

Study results published in the Journal of Pediatrics concluded that the benefits of kangaroo care were still significant 20 years later. From 1993 to 1996, researchers studied kangaroo care versus traditional care of preterm, low birth weight babies. In a 20-year follow up study, researchers found that babies who had kangaroo care had better cognitive, neurologic, and social outcomes later in life, such as fewer behavioral issues and reduced school absenteeism, than those who didn't have kangaroo care.

Cuddling is also a vital component to the Eat, Sleep, Console method to treat neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is caused when a baby withdraws from the opiates he or she was exposed to in the womb before birth. Eat, Sleep, Console is a new approach to help babies withdraw from opiates without the use of medication.

Healing Hugs at Danbury Hospital

Healing Hugs was spearheaded by Eve Garcia, the administrative coordinator for the OB/GYN and pediatrics departments at Danbury Hospital. She's passionate about this service and wanted to ensure that it was executed properly.

"All volunteers are required to take a training class administered by one of our highly skilled neonatal nurses. During the training, volunteers learn the benefits of cuddling, how to console a baby, and a baby's tolerance to various things, such as voice volume. They also learn the warning signs that a baby is in distress and when to call for a nurse," said Eve.

Eve works closely with Danbury Hospital Volunteer Services to select Healing Hugs volunteers. To become a volunteer, applicants must first pass a background check and meet certain qualifications, such as professionalism and a warm disposition, and attend a volunteer orientation. They must also commit to at least two hours per week because a volunteer's consistency and reliability is important for staff and patients. Potential Healing Hugs volunteers are then interviewed by the NICU staff. Those selected by the staff attend a Healing Hugs training class.

Paying it forward

Danbury Hospital has ten Healing Hugs volunteers. One of these volunteers is Judith Pennington from Brookfield, Connecticut.

Judith started parenthood in the Danbury Hospital NICU, where she spent 10 days with her oldest son after he was born. Her newborn son's unexpected illness was a traumatizing experience that thankfully had a positive outcome. Today, the 29-year old is thriving, as are Judith's 27-year old son and 24-year old daughter, who also went to the NICU after they were born.

"Thank goodness for the Danbury Hospital NICU staff who give the tiniest and sickest babies a chance to do amazing things," said Judith. "I still feel a strong need to give back to Danbury Hospital. If my children weren't saved, my entire life would have been very different. The labor and delivery and NICU staff helped me to become a parent, and being a mother has given me tremendous joy," said Judith about why she is a volunteer cuddler.

When Judith stayed with her firstborn son in the NICU, the nurses taught her about the benefits of comforting, human touch, especially for newborns. It's a lesson she's applied to all of her children, and she attests is one of the reasons why her adult children are doing so well today.

"Over time, babies' needs haven't changed. Every baby still needs to be held close to another human being. I know from my own experience that positive touches have inestimable, lifelong value," said Judith.

Judith feels privileged to be part of Healing Hugs because helping the most vulnerable babies has been a mission for her since her time with her children in the NICU.

"I believe that everyone is born with the potential to make a huge impact on the world. When I cuddle babies in the NICU, I look at their little faces and I see hope. I may be holding the next Einstein for all I know!"

For Eve's last birthday, she asked family and friends to donate to Healing Hugs in lieu of gifts. She raised enough funds to purchase a MamaRoo swing and positioning devices to comfort babies in the NICU. Thank you Eve and those who contributed to the fundraiser!


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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