Hospital Recruits Volunteers to Cuddle With Drug-Addicted Babies Going Through Withdrawal

"It's allowing us to have less medications, reduce the length of stay the babies have to be in here, and supplement the nursing staff," the hospital said.

At a Pennsylvania hospital, it is not only the nurses and the new moms who get to snuggle with a newborn.

Meet the team of women who spend their days providing comfort and a loving touch to babies suffering from drug withdrawal.

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According to the Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, nearly 600 babies are born in Pennsylvania with neonatal abstinence syndrome as a result of their mother's drug use during pregnancy.

"When babies are born after having been exposed to opioids [in the womb], their systems are withdrawing from not having that in their system any longer," said Maribeth McLaughlin, who oversees the cuddling program at the hospital.

McLaughlin explained these babies are often very irritable, have digestive problems, and are more sensitive to bright lights and loud noises. While researchers are still unsure of the long term side effects, McLaughlin said infants with NAS have a higher chance of returning to the emergency room if they're not watched carefully, since they often have problems breastfeeding, eating or drinking water.

At the hospital, McLaughlin said nurses are trained to watch the babies in a special neonatal intensive care unit, where they are placed in individual cribs. Depending on the severity of each case, babies are either monitored and observed, or given doses or morphine to wean them off drugs. 

In an attempt to cut down on giving medications to the infants, and allowing the babies a shorter hospital stay, McLaughlin said the facility began recruiting volunteers to cuddle with the babies during their withdrawal at the hospital's Pittsburgh location, and expanded the program to its Altoona location.

Hundreds flocked to the hospital in an attempt to become one of the few chosen volunteers to cuddle with the delicate babies.

"We were looking for someone with an interest in wanting to help and support these families," McLaughlin said. Each volunteer is screened in the same manner of any staff at the hospital, and they are trained in the proper techniques to handle and hold the infants.

Despite the strenuous process, McLaughlin said the program has been an immense success: "Cuddlers provide them with additional comfort, as opposed to having to start an IV or give a baby morphine. It's allowing us to have less medications, reduce the length of stay the babies have to be in here, and supplement the nursing staff."

In addition, she said the volunteers are able to be an example to new mothers, and teach them how to deal with a fussy baby. 

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"These moms see there is someone that's not a staff member helping to cuddle and they're able to model from the behavior," McLaughlin said. "It helps them see there are support structures, not just hospital staff, but our communities as well, to help as they continue to deal with addiction. There's not a stigma. We understand they're trying to get better."

With more than 250 applicants on the waiting list to become a volunteer at the Pittsburgh location, and more than 150 at the Altoona location, the hospital said they are no longer recruiting for the position.

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