MIAMI COUNTY — A little touch can go a long way.
In recent years, researchers have discovered that infant massage, skin-to-skin contact between parent and child, and even the cuddling we take for granted with babies, can be of benefit to the child’s development and sense of self.
Using touch as therapy is especially powerful when it comes to drug-exposed infants — babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) — according to Teri Gulker, women’s service coordinator and director of nursing at Upper Valley Medical Center.
Gulker, a Troy High School graduate who’s been in the nursing field for three decades, said Ohio’s opioid epidemic has boosted the number of newborns affected by NAS, and after seeing a cuddler program at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, she knew one was needed here.
“It’s all about the power of touch. Babies with addiction problems, when they’re withdrawing, they need to be held close,” Gulker explained.
Studies have shown that babies in withdrawal who are held regularly seem to need less medication and go home sooner than those who are not held frequently. Especially in the newborn period, it helps calm babies. They cry less and sleep better. Some studies that show their brain development is facilitated — possibly because they are calmer and more well-rested.
At UVMC, cuddlers are unpaid volunteers who simply love children and have hugs to spare.
“If the parents are involved, that’s great; we like that. But sometimes they’re not; we have to get permission from them for the program,” said Gulker, who worked for three years and Wilson Health in Sidney and helped open the Family Birth Center there.
“This cuddling time helps newborns feel secure and loved and is such a special reward for the volunteers, too. They cuddle, rock the babies, hold them close and just spend time with them.”
Gulker — whose duties at UVMC include director of labor and delivery, post-partum and special care nursery — said the cuddler program heralds a “return to nature” in women’s healthcare.
“For example, with skin-to-skin, the baby is placed right up to the mother’s chest after birth. We try to leave the baby there for hours. And delayed bathing— eight to 24 hours before the baby is bathed — regulates temperature better,” she explained. “I love the fact that we’re getting back to nature with some of these things.”
The cuddler program presently has five trained volunteers — it’s popular with retirees — and Gulker is quick to welcome newcomers.
“We’ve had a lot of calls from people from the community wanting to do it,” she said.
Potential volunteers must be at least 18 years old and will be required to have a tuberculosis test, a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccination, background check and undergo special training.
Anyone interested in volunteering as a cuddler or other for programs at UVMC should contact Katie Christensen, manager of volunteer services, at (937) 440-4995 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It is a wonderful way to spend your free time — rocking babies,” Gulker reiterated. “I hope many people will be interested in giving this a try.”