There are gentle warriors fighting for the babies in the UCHealth Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Memorial Hospital Central. A team of 33 volunteer cuddlers help babies get healthy by holding them in their loving arms. “What the babies need is to be calm,” explains Bruce Erickson, an engineer who has been a baby cuddler at the hospital for 22 years. “We provide them a place of calmness and sleep.”
Erickson is the volunteer coordinator and trainer for the baby cuddler program. In 1994 he found himself with spare time on his hands, and the Memorial Hospital volunteer coordinator told him about the program. Erickson had never held a baby younger than 6 months old, so he was initially uncertain. He volunteered in a different role at the hospital and waited for the required classroom and one-on-one training for the cuddlers. “I was pretty nervous the first day I went in to the NICU,” he says. “But as soon as the nurse put a baby in my arms, I was hooked.”
Today, Erickson has a weekly shift holding babies, and he serves as the one-on-one volunteer trainer for the program. He says being with the babies and staff in the NICU complements his professional life. “As an engineer I spend a lot of time on computers and probing circuits with an oscilloscope, and not interacting with people a lot,” he says. “Going from that to the NICU where it’s all about people I think is a good balance for me.”
The other cuddlers on his team look to him for wisdom. “If I have a question, I’m going to call him,” says fellow volunteer Jolene Cunico. “Bruce is very knowledgeable about everything, and he keeps us on track.”
For Cunico, the job is personal. Her grandson was born premature, and she understands the power of a loving pair of arms to help a baby get stronger. She, Erickson and their fellow volunteers are there for infants when families can’t be physically present in the NICU pod.
UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central is home to a Level III NICU, which provides the highest level of neonatal care for babies all over the region. (The Penrose-St. Francis Birth Center also has a Level III NICU and baby cuddler program.) “It’s so important [to have cuddlers here] because many of our families are coming from Trinidad or Alamosa,” says Cary Vogrin, media relations specialist at UCHealth. “They can’t be here 24/7. They really rely on people like Jolene and Bruce to nurture their baby.”
Human touch is critical for all babies, especially those in the NICU, says Dr. Mary R. Laird, neonatologist at Memorial Hospital.
“Premature babies who have human touch grow better in weight and length, and have more normal brain development than those who do not have this advantage” she says.
If a premature baby is awake and crying, it is using up valuable calories needed for growth and development instead. Getting a baby to calm down and sleep is of utmost importance. “Cuddled babies often show stabilization of their breathing and heart rate,” Laird says.
A baby’s heartbeat will often coregulate alongside the person holding it. “[Then] the baby is as calm as can be,” Erickson says. “They are so thoroughly digging being held—life is great here.”
The cuddlers are an integral part of a baby’s wellness. “I’m helping them overcome their health issues and getting them home from the hospital,” Cunico says. “It’s a joyful thing to do.”
Of course, she and Erickson are quick to praise the doctors and nurses in the NICU. “I am always impressed by the professionalism of the staff: how much they care, and how much above and beyond they are willing to do for the infants and the parents,” Erickson says.
Erickson does his own “above and beyond” during the holidays, when he dresses as Santa Clause in the NICU for families who can’t leave the hospital. “This is a job that is very rewarding,” he says. “I’ll keep on doing this until I can’t do it anymore.”
How to Volunteer
Interested in being a baby cuddler? You’ll first have to volunteer at the hospital in another capacity, then take the specialized training.
Info at careers.uchealth.org/volunteers
Penrose St. Francis Health Services
Info at centura.org/locations/penrose-st-francis-health-services/volunteer-opportunities
In the Winter print issue of this article, we incorrectly described UCHealth’s Memorial Hospital as having the only Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Southern Colorado. The Penrose-St. Francis Birth Center is also home to a Level III NICU and includes a baby-cuddling program. We sincerely regret the error.