Every so often he squeaks, passes gas or offers a simultaneous grunt and full-body stretch. He rarely cries.

By his side, absorbing all his sounds and idiosyncrasies with a watchful eye and a kind heart is Sue Taylor.

She is baby cuddler extraordinaire, a volunteer with Family and Children’s Services Niagara tasked with one simple yet important job. Holding a baby.

The retired kindergarten teacher sits in a rocking chair next to the isolette of a baby boy who has come into the care of FACS. The lights in his room are dimmed and all is quiet except for an occasional shuffle of nurses and hospital staff past his accommodations in the special care nursery at St. Catharines hospital.

NIAGARA CLOSEUP: A best start for babies

Sue Taylor is a baby cuddler at St. Catharines hospital. Family and Children’s Services Niagara enlists the help of volunteers such as Taylor to come in and give interaction with babies that for one reason or another are taken away from their parents. (Julie Jocsak/Standard Staff)
Volunteer cuddlers spend time at St. Catharines hospital with infants in FACS care.

“A lot of children I dealt with had rough starts,” she says.

She is passionate about giving kids the best start in life.

“He’s going to have good people in the beginning of his life to give him that foundation,” she says.

Babies in the nursery are here because they need extra time in the hospital, more care and more frequent monitoring. The unit’s 12 rooms are almost always occupied.

Most times, parents will stay with their baby. But in situations where that is not possible, volunteers form an important part of Team Cuddle.

“He’s got the cutest face,” says 70-year-old Taylor in a grandmother-like voice. “He’s coming along nicely.

“It’s nice to hear those baby grunts and groans. That tells me he’s healthy.”

In the three times the St. Catharines woman has been his cuddler, she has already noticed he’s less fussy and more relaxed. By the end of their two hours together, she notices his heart rate has lowered.

She stays at his side, sometimes just watching and listening.

“Sometimes part of growing is getting that sleep,” she says in a hushed voice. Other times she will keep him swaddled and rock him in her arms. She might stroke his hand or draw gentle circles on his cheek. She sings. Itsy Bitsy Spider. Jesus Love Me. Or silly made-up songs.

She has the lived experience of raising her own three children and loving her five grandchildren. She easily recognizes universal baby cues. I’m wet. I have a poopy diaper. I’m hungry so feed me.

When the little guy opens his eyes ever so slightly and wiggles inside his flannel burrito, she correctly surmises that he’s hungry. Plus, she’s savvy to his feeding schedule.

After carefully unswaddling him and changing his diaper, she assumes a comfortable position in the rocking chair and offers him a bottle of formula.

“There you go. That’s a good buddy,” she says.

“You’re a sweetheart. Yes, you are.

“Take your time. We have all sorts of time.”

She talks to him a lot.

“Eat and get stronger and grow bigger,” she says.

“Yeah, you’re going to be a smart guy.”

Taylor is one of five volunteer cuddlers assigned to his care, says Diane Brennan, child, youth and family enrichment program supervisor at FACS.

Their shifts range from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and can last up to 2.5 hours, depending on schedules. In addition, his foster parent is at the hospital four hours every day, she says.

The cuddler program started a couple years ago and has a roster of 14 on-call cuddlers.

Previously, FACS staff offered their time — often times cuddling babies after work or on weekends — but the need became so great, they couldn’t do it anymore.

Many of the volunteers are retirees who have an open schedule. Cuddle requests often come last minute.

“Every time we do a volunteer orientation and we say the word ‘baby cuddler’ everybody’s eyes light up,” she says.

“It’s a very easy position to fill.”

The benefits of cuddling are many. It can reduce the length of a baby’s time in the hospital, says Amanda Symington, nurse practitioner in the special care nursery.

It can also shorten the time needed for treatment, for example babies being treated for withdrawal symptoms, due to maternal medications, she said.

“It’s a basic human need,” she says. “We all need to be comforted.”

Cuddled babies settle faster and sleep better than babies in incubators, she said. Their heart rate is more consistent and they’re less fussy.

Unit nurses do their best to fit in cuddle time, and are often seen holding babies at the nurses station while doing paperwork, says Laura Farrelly, director of clinical services for women, babies and children.

A nurse once told her: “Nobody should have to go through the day without a hug.”

“It’s just such a basic, kind, compassionate part of life,” she says.

And cuddles are reciprocal. Last year, there was a very sick mother in intensive care. When nurses placed her baby, skin to skin on her chest, her heart rate instantly lowered, says Symington.

“It stabilized her vital signs,” she says.

In fact, the effect was so dramatic, an ICU nurse came to the woman’s room to see what had happened.

Even Taylor the cuddler attests to the calming effects of holding a baby in her arms.

Her own five grandchildren are older — from 12 to 21 years — and there was a noticeable absence of all things baby in her life. She has been volunteering for one year.

“I miss the baby part,” she says. “And it’s going to be a while before babies come into my own family again.”

She enjoys the opportunity to slow down and just be. “It takes you back to when you were a mom, holding your own baby,” she says.

“You’re so emotionally involved, even for those two hours.

“It’s fulfilling. It really is.”

And even though their time together will be short — and she will never be part of his life — she is determined to be there for him in the beginning. Simple as that.

And even though she will never meet his parents, she feels they know he’s in good hands.

“I’d tell them it will be OK,” she says.

“I’ve been there. I know how scary it can be.”

And then, she turns her attention back to the baby in her arms and offers him some advice: “Growing up is hard to do in that first year.”


How to volunteer

If you are interested in volunteering, call Family and Children’s Services Niagara at 905-937-7731 or visit www.facsniagara.on.ca/become-a-volunteer.

The application process can take several weeks to complete, and includes a volunteer orientation, police checks, references and an interview.

Source: St. Catharines Standard