When Marcela Flores’ son was born on March 4, it was clear she would have a lot more to deal with than most parents of newborns. Samuel was born at just 25 weeks gestation, and the first months of his life were spent in hospitals, including Chicago’s Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, where he’s had two stays in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
But Marcela also has a teenage daughter back home in Rockford. As much as she wanted to be with Samuel 24/7, in reality, she just couldn’t. That’s where Lurie’s team of volunteers stepped in—especially those who are part of what’s known as the NICU “hugging program.”
The initiative, which recently received the first grant from Huggies’ No Baby Unhugged program, allows parents and caregivers to go to work, take siblings to school, or simply step outside for a breath of fresh air, knowing that their baby will still get valuable physical contact.
“They’re really thankful because they can’t be here all the time,” says NICU nurse Carrie Prather. “They know somebody else is holding [the baby] and hugging and giving them that personal attention.”
Flores says Samuel is “a lot happier” when he’s being held, so she’s glad that Lurie’s volunteers are willing to step in.
A recent study, prepared for Huggies and presented at the Canadian Association of Paediatric Health Centres, “The Power of Human Touch for Babies,” found that physical touch has measurable benefits for the health of a baby, including increased weight gain, improved oxygen levels, more stable heart rates, less anxiety and stress, better pain tolerance, improved sleep and, ultimately, shorter hospital stays.
The study gives new credence to what health professionals had already observed in Lurie’s NICU.
“It’s really important that babies get held,” Prather says. “You can see their vital signs stabilize.”
The study found that “touch is an essential component to help [babies] reach their optimal potential,” and that, while there have been many technological developments in caring for ill babies, holding babies is the most natural and cost-free way to help them deal with the trauma of being in a hospital setting.
Not every baby is able to be held in the “normal” way, either due to extremely fragile health or medical apparatuses that can get in the way. In those cases, volunteers have been trained in what’s known as containment holds—providing soothing pressure to a baby’s head and feet. Even something as small as giving a finger for the baby to grasp can have health benefits.
That type of specialized care is where the $10,000 Huggies grant comes in. The hospital has 500 volunteers—and more on a waiting list—but only some are trained in how to care for the babies in the 44-bed NICU. Plus, situations regularly arise that require additional training or input from hospital staff.
Sherry Frenzel has been volunteering at Lurie for nine years, ever since she retired from her job. She undergoes an evaluation each year and takes an annual test to show that she understands the hospital’s policies.
“The training doesn’t end after the initial training,” she says. “Every day, there’s something new or something to talk about.”
Prather sees the importance, from a medical standpoint, of training the NICU volunteers.
“They’re babies, and they’re sick babies, so they tend to be a little bit more fragile. So [the volunteer] training definitely is important. [And] we’re so thankful that Huggies did donate this grant because that helps with their training.”
Amy Popp, senior brand manager for Huggies, says it all plays into the brand’s No Baby Unhugged program, which includes the creation of diapers and wipes specially designed to meet the needs of the 90,000 micro-preemies born each year.
“Huggies believes deeply in the power of hugs,” Popp wrote in an email. “We thought the U.S. News& World Report’s nationally-ranked Ann& Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago would be a great first partner for the No Baby Unhugged program, as they too understand the importance of hugs.”
A typical volunteer shift in Lurie’s NICU is two-and-a-half hours. Depending on the day’s priorities, which are established by Carly Jokich, a child life specialist, and the Child Life Team, that time can be spent with many patients or just one.
Frenzel says she usually talks to the babies while she holds them, sometimes rocks them. And if no one else is around, she might even sing, she admits.
“The babies, they all want the same thing. They want some love and attention and to hear a voice,” she says. “I think that babies do smile. … It might be a new face, but they think they can trust you.”
The parents trust the volunteers as well.
“Parents have told me in the past that they feel more at ease knowing that someone will be checking in with their infant, providing comforting touch,” Jokich says.
According to Frenzel, who has hugged and held more babies than she can count, there are benefits for the volunteers, as well.
“It’s a wonderful feeling, the satisfaction, as well as the opportunity to help people who are going through some very difficult times,” she says. “It’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.”