Is your hospital short on hugs? How 'cuddler' programs help NICU patients

Phoenix Children's Hospital is one of the latest hospitals to boost care for its NICU patients through a "No Baby Unhugged" grant from Huggies — a $10,000 award that supports hugging programs, where hospital volunteers hold newborns whose parents may live far away or are unable to visit due to work, childcare or other obligations.

Eighteen hospitals have received grants since the Kimberly-Clark diaper maker launched the program in 2016. Phoenix Children's Hospital and Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Children's Hospital are the latest grant recipients bringing huggers to their NICUs.

At Phoenix Children's, the grant will help support 10 more NICU volunteers, bringing the hospital's team to 24. The grant will also fund proper training for volunteers on holding babies for longer periods of time and enable the addition of three rocking chairs to the NICU.  

Phoenix Children's already has NICU volunteers in action — and the hospital has seen no shortage of interest in the program, said Kristin Niehoff, clinical manager of the NICU at Phoenix Children's.

"We like to have volunteers who have had experience volunteering in other areas of the hospital, and we're always looking to accommodate anyone who's interested in volunteering," Ms. Niehoff said. "Right now, we're looking to utilize volunteers in the night hours or early in the morning. That's when we need the help, and it's important for babies to be held at those times."

Ms. Niehoff encourages hospital leaders to consider the numerous benefits the volunteer program offers, including improved patient outcomes and increased satisfaction for patients' families. The role or title serving as program leader varies by hospital, but it is usually run by the NICU clinical manager with assistance from the volunteer manager.

In particular, Ms. Niehoff expects the program to reduce the stress parents face when they have a critically ill baby in the NICU — especially if they live far from the hospital and are unable to be with their child every day.

"For parents who have a child in the NICU, the hospital can be an overwhelming environment," she said. "Anything we can do for the families to make it more like home means better outcomes for the babies and for the families' experience with our hospital."

At San Francisco-based UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, which received the $10,000 grant in 2017, the program has inspired similar enthusiasm from volunteers, improved outcomes for its infants and lessened workloads for NICU nurses.

"When information about the cuddling program comes out, we see an overwhelming response from people who want to participate," said Joanne Kuller, MSN, RN, neonatal clinical nurse specialist at Benioff Children's.

To ensure the cuddlers are committed to the NICU, Benioff Children's typically requires volunteers to work about 100 hours. Most premature babies can't handle a lot of stimulation, so volunteers must be willing to remain quiet around the infants, Ms. Kuller said. Since many people initially interested in volunteering want more interactive roles, requiring volunteers to commit to 100 hours allows them to better understand what the infants need.

As volunteers prepare for their roles in the NICU, they receive training from hospital staff to monitor babies' behavioral cues. Benioff is also using the grant money to develop orientation packets on identifying preemie stress signals. The volunteers, who can work up to three- or four-hour shifts, hold a baby for about an hour and walk through the unit to listen for other babies who need to be held.

Benioff is now looking to develop informational materials available through Huggies for other hospitals to use, including an instructional video to train volunteers.

Although the program hasn't been a cost-saving measure for the hospital, it's benefited the infants in several ways. "The babies are exposed to a lot of negative stimuli, including painful, stressful procedures," Ms. Kuller said. "We found the act of holding them really counteracts negative stress and allows us to offer more developmental benefits for our patients."  

And the program is a huge benefit for Benioff nurses, who often struggle to find time to hold babies who need attention during busy shifts, Ms. Kuller added. "It's really frustrating for nurses to know a baby needs to be taken care of when they have heavy workloads."

One year after launching the volunteer program, Ms. Kuller is telling hospital executives to do the same.

"We know babies who are cuddled gain weight more quickly, their oxygen levels come up and having volunteers around can help them better relate to adults," Ms. Kuller said.  "Once you have the program, you realize how much additional value it adds and how good it is for your babies."

Hospitals interested in consideration for the next round of grants ($10,000 per hospital) can apply on the Huggies Healthcare website by July 27. The following round of applications will be due October 22.

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