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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