Special Report: Volunteer Cuddlers Help Sick Babies at Toledo Children's Hospital

Marilyn Maas cuddles a newborn at Toledo Hospital's NICU. Studies have shown cuddling can improve a baby's health

TOLEDO -- The human touch works wonders, especially when it comes to babies staying in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Many of them along with other babies born prematurely require a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Babies at the Toledo Childrenâ??s Hospital NICU are getting care not only just from doctors and nurses, but also from a select group of volunteers who make up the hospitalâ??s cuddling program.

Marilyn Maas is one of ten specially screened volunteers who donate their time to cuddle sick infants. Maas is a retiree who learned of the program from her daughter, a nurse in Toledo Childrenâ??s NICU. Maas goes to the unit for a couple of hours at least once a week, cuddling multiple babies during her shift.

â??We read books, we talk, we sing. If theyâ??re sleeping, we just cuddle, and sometimes we hum a couple of songs,â?? Maas said.

The cuddling program is in its third year at Toledo Children's Hospital. Each of the volunteers are trained how to hold the babies and how to communicate with nurses. The family of a baby must also agree to let the cuddlers hold them.

Many families give their consent because they canâ??t always be at the hospital, especially for infants who require a stay of several weeks and sometimes months at the hospital.

â??Theyâ??re very appreciative that someone is available to hold their baby, because they canâ??t be here,â?? according to Liz Bates, director of nurses at the Toledo Children's NICU. â??And that means a lot to them, that someone can hold the baby and the babyâ??s not laying in the incubator or the crib all day.â??

Cuddlers provide more than comfort to a baby. Human touch can also impact a newbornâ??s health for the better.

According to Bates, studies have shown that holding a baby can help them grow faster and improve their digestion. She also says the cuddlers help babies with sleep apnea, and reduces the number of bradycardic episodes (when a babyâ??s heart rate becomes too slow).

â??Itâ??s just a great program. And I love it,â?? said Maas.

Hospital officials said they currently donâ??t need any more volunteers for the cuddling program. A number of people are already on a waitlist.