Volunteer Cuddlers Help Drug-Dependent Newborns

By Keri Blakinger 01/24/17

NAS babies who are cuddled gain weight easier and have shorter hospital stays. 

Woman cuddling newborn baby.

Volunteer "cuddlers" are a new weapon in the fight against opioid addiction. In places like Pennsylvania—where nearly 20 out of every 1,000 newborns battle drug withdrawal—hospitals have started using cuddlers to ease the babes’ pain, according to the Philadelphia Daily News

“I hum and chant,” said Addy Schultz, a 72-year-old volunteer at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “When he cramps up, I hold him harder and pat a little firmer,” she added, holding a 13-day-old infant in her arms. “They don’t like to be stroked or caressed.” 

Babies born in drug withdrawal—a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)—can take weeks or months to gradually wean off substances. In the meantime, the newborns suffer from all the typical withdrawal symptoms familiar to former drug users: tremors, muscle spasms, irritability, indigestion, diarrhea, vomiting and fever. 

"These babies going through withdrawal need to be held for extended periods," said Jane Cavanaugh, the nurse who launched Thomas Jefferson's cuddler program last year. "They need human touch. They need soothing. They need talking."

Although snugglers are catching on as the opioid epidemic grows, researchers laid the groundwork for them decades ago, during the crack epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Studies at the time showed that drug-dependent babies who were cuddled gained weight quickly and had shorter hospital stays—and initiatives started popping up to calm the pained newborns. 

But now, with a different drug dominating the headlines, volunteer cuddlers are in vogue again. At Magee-Womens Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, there are more than 200 would-be volunteers on a wait list, according to STAT News

Up in Boston, Pam Turcotte started volunteering as soon as she heard it was possible. Her own grandchild was born with NAS, so it seemed like a natural step. “This is something that I needed to do, and it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done,” she said. 

Aside from the joy of easing a baby’s turmoil, the snuggling programs offer some financial benefits. Treating NAS infants is a pricy proposition, so any program that can reduce the length of their hospital stays could net big savings—up to $2 million a year, according to Dr. Elisha Wachman of Boston University.

And cuddlers can also help relieve the burden on over-worked nurses trying to care for as many as 10 to 12 NAS babies at once. “These volunteers are a godsend,” said Maryann Malloy, a nurse manager at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. “They are wonderful as far as pacifying the babies.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.