Abbotsford Regional Hospital Volunteer cuddler Tracey McClelland (seated, with infant) and Child Life Specialist Sherri Lalonde are involved in a new program to soothe substance-exposed babies.

Cuddles for little angels

29/11/2016 8:00:10 AM | 15 comments |
Fifteen years ago, Abbotsford’s Tracey McClelland was a first-time mother, yearning to hold her tiny premature son. Instead, most of the time she could only watch as her little four-and-a-half pound bundle lay in his isolette in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Abbotsford’s hospital. 
Today, with her three children all healthy and grown, she’s returned to the Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Centre’s NICU. This time, she’s here to cuddle and comfort other babies with issues far more serious than her son ever faced, as one of 15 volunteer cuddlers dedicated to soothing substance-exposed newborns.

“We’re there to help babies who are in distress and who have been exposed to drugs and alcohol,” Tracey said, “to provide them comfort.”

When Tracey holds a fretting child, she sings songs from Lullabies for Little Angels, an album she listened to years ago as she watched over her own angel. She bounces the anxious babies for two hours at a stretch a few times a week, sometimes for a month or more, patting and pacing and soothing them to sleep.

“I just hold them,” she said, “and I tell them over and over that they are going to be okay.”

It was the need to find extra hands to hold these babies that inspired hospital staff to revamp and expand the NICU volunteer cuddler program in mid-2014.

“We were noticing an increased trend of substance-exposed infants – newborns with narcotic abstinence syndrome who were suffering withdrawal after birth – in our NICU,” said Clinical Services Manager of the Maternal, Infant, Child and Youth Program, Surjeet Meelu. “Three years ago, we used to see one affected baby on the unit a month, maybe two. But now, we are seeing up to four.”

In the past, the unit had previously hosted some NICU volunteers, but as the number of substance-affected babies increased, it was clear the program needed to be enhanced. So together, Surjeet, the hospital’s Child Life Specialists, Sherri Lalonde and Susie Clark, and the Coordinator of Volunteer Resources, Joanne Halligan, set out to build a large, dedicated team of volunteer cuddlers.

They recruited existing hospital volunteers who were already screened and provided additional training. The dedicated team launched in 2014 with six volunteers to provide cuddles to substance-exposed babies in two-hour shifts, with the parents’ consent.

“We call it cuddling, but it’s really psycho-social intervention,” Surjeet explained, noting the goal is to promote the emotional attachment, brain development and the sensory stimulation all infants need to thrive. “Cuddling is so important. It supports them through that difficult withdrawal phase and allows us to provide that patient-centred, baby-friendly, trauma-informed care.”
Since the program began, the volunteers have comforted approximately 10 substance-affected babies each year.
“The staff is so appreciative,” said Sherri, the Child Life Specialist. Just imagine you are a nurse and there is a baby constantly crying, and you have three other babies who need feeding, changing or bloodwork,” Sherri says. “You can’t always be with that baby. So having that extra set of hands to soothe that baby, it’s almost as valuable as medicine.”
Tracey doesn’t often run into the families of the babies she cuddles, but when she does, they show gratitude. She recalls a heartfelt thank you from the father of one of the substance-exposed babies, as she placed his baby back in his arms.  And once she met the foster mother of one of her cuddled infants who was thrilled Tracey was able to share with her tips about her new child’s temperament.

But most days, Tracey says, the warmth of the babies is thanks enough.

“I get a real feeling of warmth from them, she said. “It’s love, but it’s not the same love that you have for your children, it’s love for someone you know is in need, and you want to help.”


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Janette Emsley
I am presently a hospice volunteer at PAH. I would like to get involved with the cuddle care program for babies.
18/02/2018 10:38:21 AM

Fraser Health Communications
Hi Patricia,

Thank you for your interest in Fraser Health. If you are interested in volunteering with us, we encourage you to visit

You can click into Peace Arch Hospital to learn more about the kinds of opportunities that may be available, and the process for applying.

Should you have any questions, the contact information is:  or call: 604-531-5512.

They will be happy to answer any questions you may have about volunteering.

Fraser Health Communications
28/12/2017 11:50:57 AM

Patricia Stott
does PAH have a cuddling program for at risk or premature infants?
26/12/2017 11:05:35 AM

Chloe Scarf
I would like to know more about the cuddle program and see if i can fit it into my schedule
03/11/2017 12:19:54 PM

Fraser Health Communications
Hi Nicole,

Thank you for your interest. At this time the volunteer cuddler program only accepts long-term applicants who are currently volunteering with the hospital.

For more information on volunteer opportunities, please visit our website:

Warm regards,
Fraser Health Communications
02/10/2017 9:07:19 AM

Nicole Parenteau
I would like to become a full time volunteer...i have since become a grandmother 3 times in the last 2 years and feel that all babies need the same love and compassion
30/09/2017 11:16:59 PM

I would like more information on the cuddle program
06/05/2017 3:59:48 AM

Fraser Health Communications
Hi Shannon,

Thank you for your interest. At this time the volunteer cuddler program only accepts long-term applicants who are currently volunteering with the hospital.

For more information on volunteer opportunities, please visit our website:

Warm regards,
Fraser Health Communications
03/05/2017 9:16:16 AM

Shannon Pusch
I would like to find out about voluntering to cubbly drug addicted babies
01/05/2017 2:29:20 PM

Fraser Health Communications
Hi Cyndi,

Thank you for your interest in the cuddling infant program. Interested volunteers are required to be a current Abbotsford Regional Hospital volunteer to apply to this program and go through selection and training.

For more information on volunteer opportunities at ARH, please visit our website:

Fraser Health Communications
02/12/2016 1:21:58 PM

Cyndi Walker
Hi, I'm a volunteer at Vine Youth Clinic at Peace Arch Hospital and I volunteer at Queen's Park Residential Care in New Westminster. I would love to be involved in the cuddling infant program. Thank you
02/12/2016 11:01:18 AM

Fraser Health Communications
Thank you for your interest. At this time the volunteer cuddler program only accepts long-term applicants who are currently volunteering with the hospital.

For more information on volunteer opportunities, please visit our website:
30/11/2016 3:41:06 PM

Jen Bernier
Can you send me information on how to get involved with this program please? I'm a mother to a former NICU baby.
30/11/2016 1:31:39 PM

Gail Purdy
I would like more information on cuddles for Infants
30/11/2016 8:10:23 AM

This is a win-win program, for the infant, for the infant's family, for the volunteer and for FH staff. Great initiative!
29/11/2016 12:42:48 PM

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