Nurses glide between them, feeding their minute charges mother’s milk through noodle thin, nasal-gastro tubes. They change nappies the size of a child’s mitten and coo soothing words as rosebud mouths suckle the air in an attempt to learn the art of co-ordinated sucking, breathing, and swallowing.
Daily, parents navigate their tiny babies across the space from their hi-tech cocoons to tuck little limbs in under shirts, for hours-long, skin to skin contact that will release vital bonding and development hormones.
This devotion goes on 24/7 accompanied by the constant beeping of the monitoring devices. It’s a miracle at work.
A precarious life further compromised
Despite their precarious start to life, they visibly respond to the support, love, and protection of their parents, grandparents, and the remarkable medical staff of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). They’re the lucky ones.
The United States alone has 750,000 cocaine-exposed pregnancies every year. Cocaine use compromises normal cardio-vascular changes in pregnancy, often leading to preterm labour. Many babies are born premature as a result, and worse, they’re addicted to the drug.
Many are also compromised by other forms of addictive drugs, including painkillers and heroin.
Their mothers (and sometimes both parents), struggling with the complications of an addicted life, are not always able to cuddle babies and provide consistent love, skin to skin time, and mother’s milk over the long weeks of a neonate’s stay in hospital, all of which are so vital to a pre-term baby’s long-term health.
The infant, not only compromised by premature birth, also suffers withdrawal from the drugs that have crossed the placental wall. The condition is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).
NAS leaves these tiny babies in pain, sometimes with fever, rapid breathing, insomnia, trembling, vomiting, and sweating.
It is inconceivable to think of any child, let alone a premature baby, suffering in this way without at least the love and support of its closest family. The NICU nurses are incredible, but they have a ward of already compromised babies to monitor.
Cuddle babies a solution
Many studies show the need for these babies to receive soothing and caring physical contact.
“These babies need to feel love, human touch and a soft voice to comfort them when they’re in pain,” says Maryann Malloy, a nurse manager for the neonatal intensive care unit at Einstein Medical Centre in Philadelphia, as reported by the BBC in January 2017.
“It is a helpless feeling when these babies become inconsolable. Our cuddlers help so the babies do not reach that point. They pick them up before the first whimper,” she said.
There are now many volunteer programs across the United States, in the UK, and in Australia recruiting volunteers to cuddle these vulnerable and sometimes abandoned babies.
Doctors have noted that having volunteers available to cuddle neonates reduces both the amount of medication the babies need and their length of stay in intensive care.
Health workers at Winchester Medical Center, in Virginia — another hospital that offers the program — have found cuddling cuts a baby’s hospital stay from 40 days to 21, Today.com reported.
Raising awareness is a first step toward change
These babies are among millions and millions of children that suffer worldwide. If we don’t know about an issue, we can’t do anything about it. Highlighting the problem initiates change.
Volunteering to cuddle these babies is a practical and beautiful contribution to resetting their lives.
They may still have ongoing health implications as a result of being born premature and addicted, especially if their parents are unable to take care of them. But the cuddling experience goes a long way towards rectifying their endangered start.
As important is the work that needs to be done educating young female addicts about the potential harm awaiting their unborn infants.
Educating for change
We could start through schools with young people who may be at risk of addiction and who are also sexually active, to raise awareness of the consequences of a pregnancy resulting in a premature birth.
We could explain to them how these infants might suffer. Young people, no matter their circumstances, do not lack compassion.
CreateCare Global Kids program encourages young people to research an issue and bring their creative and critical thinking skills to solving it. Here is a challenge to these young people to do the research and start an education program for their peers.
If by doing so they prevented just one baby being born premature, suffering withdrawal, and reliant on a stranger rather than its parents to cuddle it through its trauma, they will have done great work.
If you would like to know more about our Kids Program, please contact us here. To find out more about Cuddle Babies volunteers programs, contact your nearest children’s hospital.