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Nurtured in the NICU: Baby Cuddlers Program

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

By Erica Rzepecki.

There’s something magical about the human touch.

This is something Kelly Northrup – a registered nurse in the NICU at Saint John Regional Hospital in New Brunswick, and the coordinator of the hospital’s Volunteer Baby Cuddlers program – has believed for years.

The Baby Cuddlers program works exactly as its name suggests: carefully-screened and thoroughly-trained volunteers cuddle NICU babies when the babies’ parents are unable to do so. Cuddlers hold the babies for at least 45 minutes at a time to give them adequate undisturbed sleeping time, and may also assist in soothing, singing to, or talking to the babies to give them personal, human touch at least once a day. In other words, the dream volunteer opportunity!

Saint John Hospital first began their Cuddlers program eight years ago to help what are called “special care babies” – those born addicted and going through withdrawal after birth. Since then, the program has expanded to be available for all babies in the hospital’s NICU, including preemies and those with other health complications.

The Baby Cuddlers program has made a huge difference in many babies’ lives, and those of their parents too. While some parents may be able to stay in the NICU and be with their child most of the time, many have to leave for work, to look after their other children, or to run errands to keep up with other areas of their life while their baby is in the hospital. However, as Kelly notes, these parents often feel guilty knowing that their child won’t be held while they’re away.

This is where the Volunteer Cuddlers come in – they act as a source of non-procedural or medicinal touch for the babies, which helps them feel loved and cared for while their parents are away.

In the prematurity community, the power of touch has been widely studied in terms of its effects on preemie babies’ health and well-being. It has been found to help regulate their temperatures and heart rates, improve their breathing and sleeping, and even help them grow faster – all of which helps them be ready to go home.

In addition to cuddling and providing non-medical care, many Cuddlers create “milestone crafts” which document the child’s life milestones for the parents in a fun way. Some also leave notes for parents so they know someone was caring for their child while they were away, and other Cuddlers even come visit parents while they arepresent in the NICU to give them someone to talk to who knows their baby, but isn’t there for medical reasons.

Of course, cuddling sick or small babies can be challenging for the volunteers, as the babies may be in distress or need medical care, but doctors and nurses are always at hand. And what’s more, cuddling can have positive impacts on the Cuddler’s well-being too. Aside from the warm-and-fuzzy feeling of knowing they’ve helped a baby and their family, baby cuddling can also be calming and fulfilling for the Cuddler. Kelly says many Cuddlers have reported that the feeling of watching a baby they’ve cuddled grow and get healthy is unmatchable.

If this sounds like your dream job, visit your local hospital’s volunteer webpage, and look for a baby cuddling program near you.

Nurtured in the NICUstories are created by the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation to highlight the wonderful work of doctors, nurses, and parent volunteers in Canada’s NICUs. For more information or if you would like to share an initiative happening in your NICU, please send us an email at

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