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 | By Joey Reistroffer

NICU babies receive extra care with cuddlers

Sometimes all a newborn needs is a soothing lullaby while being swaddled and gently rocked, but many infants don’t get that chance. Some have to be in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a hospital with mom and dad not able to be there. Others are going through withdrawal because mom was addicted to drugs.

Nurses at Atrium Health Pineville, a hospital near Charlotte, North Carolina, don’t judge. They just want that baby to be loved.

So they began a cuddler program in 2016, bringing in volunteers to swaddle, sway and gently sing to these tiny ones so they won’t be alone and scared. 

“Once they get in your arms, and they are wrapped up nicely, they sleep,” said Lu Taylor, a retired nurse from Hartford, Connecticut. She settled in Fort Mill, South Carolina, after she retired and now volunteers as a baby cuddler at Atrium.

Taylor calls these gentle moments — when she sees an infant she is cuddling asleep and at peace — “precious.” It’s the reason she volunteers, and she knows how crazy it can get in the NICU.

“I was a night nurse for 15 years, mostly in the NICU. I feel very comfortable in the hospital with the nurses and the babies. I knew I wanted to get involved,” Taylor said.

She began her career as a nurse in 1968, but isn’t quite ready to give it up completely.

“My children told me, ‘Mom, you’re happiest when you’re with these babies.’ And that’s the truth,” she added.

“I usually pray over them, and for their families, too. I give them a blessing,” said Taylor, who attends St. Philip Neri Church in Fort Mill.

Many first-time parents who see their baby in the NICU need those prayers.

“They see the tubes and hear the beeping sounds of the monitors. It is terrifying,” she said. 

NICU cuddlers help reassure parents, free up nurses and comfort newborns.

“It’s a win-win-win,” Taylor added.

Jen Kaplan agrees.

“I feel like it’s a small way that I can help,” Kaplan said. “Sometimes the baby or the family are in a tough spot, so it’s something I can do without being obtrusive.”

The ultimate moment for a cuddler is watching a baby going through withdrawal begin to settle, she said.

“We’ve learned from the nurses that sleeping is the best way for these babies to recover and thrive,” Kaplan said. “While sometimes we know the medications are partly what gets them to settle, we see how restless they are even when being held, so we know that if they were in the bassinet by themselves, they would be fussing or crying.”

That is heartbreaking. Perhaps that is even why some folks sign up to give their time and their love to these little ones. They are trained by the hospital and called to take three-hour shifts. Taylor enjoys the late-night shift. She’s used to it. “I’m very dedicated to the NICU,” she said.

Kaplan sees that as a plus.

“Some volunteers are from the medical community and know the need,” Kaplan said. “Others just miss cuddling babies, any babies, as our own kids are too old for cuddling.”

The cuddlers rarely get to meet the infants’ parents, but when they do, they realize how key their role is in the lives of these itty bitties and their families.

“They are very appreciative of the service we provide,” Kaplan said of the parents. “We often see them juggling being in the NICU with their baby versus being home to get older siblings off to school, so it generally brings them a lot of peace knowing their children are well loved when they are unable to be there.”

Kaplan is a “volunteer extraordinaire,” according to Andrea Cloninger, a registered nurse who works in the NICU at Atrium. She said the need for these cuddlers is crucial for babies who have been left alone.

“We do have babies that have parents that just can’t get to the hospital,” Cloninger said. “Some parents are not at a point in their life where they can visit at all.”

Unfortunately, COVID-19 decimated the cuddler program in Pineville. Now it’s in transition, and Cloninger said the hospital is working to redevelop it with the NICU and maternity centers working together.

“It’s a joint project,” she said of the new Eat Sleep Console (ESC) program. “It begins in the maternity center. Our goal is to always keep the baby with the mom, unless the baby needs to be medicated.” 

That goal, however, is not always the reality, and “we have lots of issues that have to be worked out,” she added.

In the meantime, the hospital still has a core group of cuddlers gently loving these babies, and they are looking for more volunteers as ESC gets settled, Cloninger said.

More “precious” moments lay ahead for those giving their time to tiny babies they swaddle and rock.

Joseph Reistroffer is a long-time writer who teaches religious education classes at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Spartanburg. Email him at