Hospital Volunteers Soothe Addicted Babies With the Cuddle Cure

You might be surprised to learn just how comforting a loving cuddle can be.

Just three days old, baby Matthew trembles in the hospital volunteer’s arms. As she holds him close, she quiets Matthew’s cries, and he drifts into a more restful sleep. What is the source of Matthew’s tremors?

He's suffering from withdrawal.

The Painful Truth About NAS

Matthew is just one of the 13,000+ babies born in the US each year with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). Babies get NAS when mothers use narcotic painkillers or other opiates like heroin during pregnancy. The child becomes addicted in utero. Once born, the drug supply from mom is removed, so they suffer withdrawal symptoms.

These symptoms are the same as those suffered by adult drug users in withdrawal. They include tremors, irritability, indigestion, muscle spasms, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. To recover from NAS, newborns stay an average of 24 days in the hospital.

“The babies, they are really unsettled, they really suffer, just like adults do when they withdraw from narcotics,” explains Dr. Terrie Inder, chair of pediatric newborn medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, “The babies are very irritable and sometimes have high heart rates, sweating, flushing, diarrhea. They cry a lot. Often, they need someone to really hold and cuddle and nurture them and support them.”

Volunteers Answer Babies’ Cries

In hospitals across the nation, volunteers are giving “cuddle time” to these suffering infants – and it’s making an impact. Studies have shown that babies who are cuddled gain weight easier and have short hospital stays.

Maribeth McLaughlin, who oversees this volunteer program at Magee-Women’s Hospital of UPMC in Pennsylvania, notes the benefits of these efforts, “Cuddlers provide them with additional comfort, as opposed to having to start an IV or give a baby morphine. It’s allowing us to have less medications, reduce the length of stay the babies have to be in here and supplement the nursing staff.” McLaughlin notes that the program benefits the moms, too, as volunteers model good parenting skills.

Between 2000 and 2012, JAMA Pediatrics reported a five-fold increase in maternal opioid use and NAS cases. Rural areas have been hit especially hard with rising opioid use. From 2004 to 2013, rural hospitals saw a seven fold increase in infants born dependent on drugs.

The good news is, there’s no shortage of cuddle volunteers. In fact, at Magee-Women’s Hospital, it’s one of the most popular volunteer programs, and the waiting list is long. As the rate of NAS increases each year, these much-appreciated cuddlers help to meet a growing need.

Image Source: iStock

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