Babies exposed to opioids often find the simple things, like breathing and eating, difficult. They may sweat, shake, and seem inconsolable.
“They didn’t ask for this. They are working so hard just to eat or sleep or survive or be a baby,” said Ellie Cohen, Baby Cuddler volunteer.
SSM Health St. Mary’s Women and Infant Substance Help (WISH) Center provides maternity care for women dependent on opioids and other drugs and is the only facility of its kind in the region.
About 15 mothers deliver babies who have been exposed to drugs in utero each month at St. Mary’s hospital.
“Sometimes these babies can be a little demanding when they are going through withdrawal,” said Mary Hope, RN. “So, in these situations, if the mother needs to step away and the nurses find themselves taken away by other babies or parents who might need them, the volunteers are just so vital to give up their time to walk and hold the baby and to provide comfort and to cuddle them.”
These volunteers are called Baby Cuddlers.
Having trained baby cuddlers became more important with the influx of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) babies.
“Once a baby gets started on morphine as a treatment for their NAS, they’re usually on that for weeks or months at a time,” said Becky Boedeker, RN. “So, if the mother is not able to stay with the baby, we can have someone come in and be one on one with that baby and hold them and respond to the immediately. We know when that happens, they don’t escalate to having to be treated with morphine.”
The benefits of human touch are well documented. Studies show that babies who are held frequently after birth have lower stress levels, and show great brain and emotional development.
“I’m very patient and I just say to the babies ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to be here until we figure out how to calm you down and make you comfortable,’” said Ellie Cohen, Baby Cuddler volunteer. “It’s just a beautiful thing, because in that short amount of time, I feel like we connect with each other. It’s just a reminder that human touch is so important and healing.”
The program has been so successful at St. Mary’s that SSM is expanding it to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.