Image of a woman cuddling a baby in the hospital

Photography by Denise Militzer

Why cuddling babies is the world’s best volunteer job

Tiny preemies in the NICU get lasting benefits from simple human contact—and so do the people who hold them

If everyone has a superpower, Dayna Black’s is getting fussy newborns to sleep. “I don’t know if it’s that I have a slow heartbeat, but somehow when I hold these tiny babies in the NICU, they just drift off in my arms,” she says.

The accountant takes time away from her office every Friday morning to volunteer in North York General Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). As a parent support volunteer, her tasks include straightening out the parents’ lounge and making milestone bracelets to celebrate all the firsts accomplished by her pint-sized patients. But by far the loveliest part of her job is cuddling babies. “They just melt into your warmth,” says Black. “That’s my bit of heaven.” And science has shown that it’s wonderful for the infants, too.

Image of a woman holding a baby and a man kissing it's head

According to a study published in Biological Psychiatry in 2014, and reported in Time magazine, cuddling preterm babies as often as possible throughout the day promotes better sleeping, steadier breathing and heart rates, and a stronger ability to direct their gaze and movements towards a goal. What’s more, as 10-year-olds, those same kids have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva when they’re under pressure, suggesting that some of the emotional benefits are enduring.

However, a baby’s caregivers may not always have the chance to be in the NICU holding their newborn: The mother may still be recovering from a difficult birth; the parents may be juggling the care of siblings at home with hospital visits; or the infant may be a Crown ward awaiting adoption. While there’s a high ratio of medical staff to patients in the NICU, nurses can’t always stop what they’re doing to sit and soothe a restless baby. That’s where parent support volunteers like Black step in.

Image of a baby in a hospital yawning

“The nurse will transfer the babies to us from the cot or isolette,” explains Black. “They’re wrapped up like a burrito, so they’re not flailing or anything—they’re in a very secure environment.” Black might sit and hold a baby for as long as two hours, allowing it to relax, get more refreshing sleep and channel its energy into feeding, growing and developing, instead of crying. Meanwhile, the nurses are around constantly to check in and respond if a monitor starts beeping.

There is an art to cuddling preemies: “They’re so sensitive to movement and sound that they don’t want to be patted or rocked, like a full-term baby would,” explains Black. “You sit still, so you are simply providing the warmth and closeness of the womb. The only motion that works, I find, is a bit of a sideways sway.” Also, many preemies suffer from reflux, so gently rubbing their bellies or holding their backs can make them more comfortable. That said, more sophisticated tasks like feeding and burping are always left to medical staff.

If a baby’s parents opt out of the cuddling program, Black can do her best to soothe that infant by gently touching its hand, making hushing noises, offering a pacifier or reading a story. Babies too medically fragile to leave their isolette also benefit from these types of attention.

Image of a volunteer standing in a hospital room

North York General Hospital recruits, trains and vets hundreds of volunteers to help in the hospital each year, but it’s exceptionally particular in selecting its baby cuddlers. “You have to have experience of the NICU,” says Black, “most commonly as a parent or grandparent who has participated in the care of a baby in intensive care.” Black had lots of relevant experience: she previously volunteered at the Massey Centre with the babies of adolescent mothers, and fostered newborns through the Children’s Aid Society. No one can resist tiny babies, so the baby-cuddling program fills up quickly. But there are plenty of other volunteer positions to consider if the roster is full; visit the hospital’s volunteer information page for program requirements.

After applying to the NICU program, Black took courses, like every other hospital volunteer, to learn how to interact with patients and respect protocols. “They taught us things like the importance of smiling with your eyes when you see people,” she recalls. Next came specialized training—gowning up and sanitizing, then handling different types of dolls in an environment equipped just like the NICU, so it would all feel familiar when the time came to cuddle real babies. Black says, “They showed us comfortable cuddling positions and explained the limitations of what we were expected and allowed to do.”

Image of a woman in a hospital chair holding a baby

Friday mornings have become the high point of Black’s week in the 18 months she’s been coming to the NICU as a parent support volunteer. “This is my touch point with reality—with what’s important in life,” she says. “I can offer whatever energy I have to these tiny babies in need, and what I get back from cuddling them just fills my heart.”

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