Nancy Simmons, Special Care Nursery volunteer, holds a newborn in her arms like she does every Monday during her shift.
Nancy Simmons, Special Care Nursery volunteer, holds a newborn in her arms like she does every Monday during her shift.

All it takes is a cuddle: MGH Special Care Nursery launches baby cuddling volunteer program

Ellen Samek

There's nothing Nancy Simmons loves more than holding a newborn baby in her arms.

The Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) volunteer and retired nurse does just that during her weekly shift as a Special Care Nursery (SCN) “baby cuddler”.

The Baby Cuddling volunteer pilot program launched at MGH in February 2017. The purpose of the program is to ensure that premature and sick newborns and infants have someone to hold them in the event that a family member can't. Similar programs exist at other hospitals in Toronto, including St. Michael's Hospital, with great success. As MGH was designing its own baby cuddling program, St. Michael's shared some resources and insight.

“Unfortunately, not every parent is able to be in the hospital around the clock when a baby is hospitalized,” says Tanya Levit, a clinical resource leader in the Special Care Nursery. “The parents may have other children at home that need to be taken care, they might have to work, or they might even be ill themselves.”

Tanya spearheaded the project with volunteer services along with the support of neonatologist Dr. Popovic, SCN manager Jennifer Bordin and SCN charge nurse Jane McGuire.

With many years of experience working in the Special Care Nursery, Tanya knows what a frightening experience it can be for parents.

“The cuddlers are there to hold the babies when their parents can't be there even though they want to be more than anything,” she says. “The studies show that being held and cuddled will help the baby's physiological and neurological development and even go into a deeper sleep.”

Just as Nancy was looking for a new volunteer challenge after 15 years in the library's health resources centre, volunteer services approached her with the opportunity to be a baby cuddler.

“When they approached me with the idea, I couldn't say no,” says Nancy, who is a grandmother of three. “I thought it sounded like something wonderful.”

Nancy, as well as four other experienced volunteers, many of them also grandmothers, were slated as the first SCN baby cuddlers.

“We wanted to pick some of our most experienced volunteers, who know the ins and outs of hospital best practices,” says Denny Petkovski, manager of volunteer services. “These babies are some of our most vulnerable patients and we carefully selected who we thought would be ideal to try out this pilot program.”

There is one volunteer that comes in each day of the week for a few hours.

While cuddling babies is undeniably cute, Nancy says she and the other volunteers take their duties very seriously. This isn't just any volunteering role.

“We maintain a level of professionalism in what we do and follow all the rules,” says Nancy. “No jewelry, short unpolished nails, always freshly laundered clothes.”

Before volunteering in the SCN, Nancy and the group underwent a series of standard medical and immunization check-ups before even entering the nursery. Newborns and infants are too young to be immunized.

There was also extensive orientation from Infection Control, Occupational Health and Safety, Privacy Office and Nursing.

When the babies are held, volunteers are always seated comfortably, wearing a special gown before the baby is brought to them by a nurse. Volunteers are not permitted to take the babies out of the cots themselves or to perform any baby care.

“The privacy of the families was something else that was stressed in orientation. I take that very seriously too,” says Nancy.

“To get a chance to cuddle a newborn baby is such a privilege. I've seen so many wonderful acts of kindness by the staff. I'm really honoured to be part of such an incredible team and to give these tiny babies the best possible start in life.”

Nancy says all the parents she's encountered are always happy to see their child being held.

For Nancy, morning shifts when the nursery is quiet is her favourite time to come in for shifts and hold the newborns.

When enough people are out of earshot, Nancy likes to sing to them; nursery rhymes mostly. She says those are the songs she knows best from spending time with her grandchildren.

As she holds the baby, she'll ponder to herself what kind of child they will become and the happy lives they will have. Will it be soccer or hockey?

“I appreciate how special and precious newborns are and I tell them that. Even though they can't understand me, I tell them that they're loved, safe and how lucky they are that they have so many wonderful people looking after them.”

MGH is the regional Paediatric Centre for South East Toronto. As a part of the Child Health Network MGH cares for infants born here as well as babies who are retro-transferred from other neonatal intensive care units within the city and other areas of the province. MGH also works closely with the Hospital for Sick Children as well as Mount Sinai Hospital and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

The Special Care Nursery at Michael Garron Hospital is a family-centred and baby friendly neonatal intensive care unit. The interdisciplinary team of healthcare providers and staff offer specialized care and advanced technology to ensure the hospital's tiniest patients receive the best care possible so they can go home with their families as soon as they can.

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