Cuddling Zen

Carol Mark is turning 75, and she’s spending her birthday doing something that literally is near and dear to her heart. Sitting in a dimly-lit room Carol holds six-month-old Ella Tuggle close against her chest and gently rocks the tiny baby girl. The look on Carol’s face, and on Ella’s face too, is one of pure joy and contentment.

“This keeps me young, I’ll tell you,” says Carol. “And it’s good therapy for both the baby and the cuddler. I’m so relaxed and that makes the babies feel relaxed, safe and secure.”

If there’s a little bit of heaven on earth then for Carol and other volunteers in Good Shepherd’s newly-launched Cuddle Program, surely this is it. The program is modeled on similar programs throughout the country, many of them on neonatal intensive care units where the cuddle program concept began. Jackie Swackhamer, an occupational therapist at the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Emily Howatt Pliskatt Unit in Bethle-hem, developed the program there in response to a need that could not be ignored.

“We had a patient on the unit who was admitted for ourneonatal abstinence program,” Jackie explains. “She literally cried eight hours out of the day because she was going through withdrawal and having difficulty self-soothing. But when we held her, she stopped crying.”

There’s no lack of compassion on the pediatric inpatient unit, but with other patients needing 24/7 care there weren’t enough hours or arms to spare. Staff popped in and out of the infant’s room and took turns holding her every chance they had, but as soon as she was laid back down she began crying again tugging at everyone’s heart strings.

When Robyn Van Norman, administrative assistant, saw a posting on social media about a cuddle program at a hospital in western Pennsylvania, she shared it with Jackie who loved the idea. “I’m really excited about this because there are so many benefits of cuddling children of all ages,” says Jackie. “Cuddling helps them sleep better, manage stress better and control their autonomic functions better like heart and respiratory rates. In hospital settings, it’s also been shown to decrease the length of stay, and for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome it decreases the need for pharmaceutical intervention.”

“A lot of our kids’ parents can’t always be here for different reasons, so it’s really nice to be able to provide something like this to them. No child should stay in their crib all day or not be held. The power of human touch is really important apart from the therapy.”

Jackie contacted a nurse at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia that had a cuddle program. The two women met on one weekend and spoke several times so Jackie could learn how to develop a cuddle program just for Good Shepherd. A committee was formed to work out logistics and Jackie then created training material for a cuddler orientation. Good Shepherd’s volunteer office seemed like a natural place to enlist cuddlers so Jackie also worked with JoAnn Frey, volunteer coordinator, to begin soliciting volunteers. JoAnn says the response has been enthusiastic.

The Good Shepherd Cuddle Program focuses on infants under the age of one. Potential cuddlers are screened and trained. Not only do they go through Good Shepherd’s regular volunteer orientation, they also attend a two-and-a-half hour orientation led by Jackie and Julianne Hirst, a recreational therapist. The training covers numerous do’s and dont’s of cuddling as well as a primer on the medical complexities, infection control procedures, safety measures, and the equipment required for some infants.

Cuddlers learn a variety of holds essential to the job since one size does not fit all. There’s the football hold, the belly hold and the craddle position. Some babies like to be held by the cuddler standing up, others prefer when the cuddler is sitting down. Still others prefer to be held over the cuddler’s shoulder or on a lap. Factor in nasogastric tubes or tracheotomy tubes and it becomes evident that cuddling these little ones has its own learning curve.

On her first day as a cuddler, Pam DiFrancesca, 61 years old and semi-retired from the family business, found herself getting more excited and just a little nervous as she drove from her home in Easton to Bethlehem. “It’s not just picking up a healthy child and cuddling,” says Pam. “Each child has his or her own set of preferences.”

Pam’s first official cuddle on a warm fall day in September was Ella. With both Jackie and Carol looking on, Pam gently picked up Ella and held her over Pam’s right shoulder. Ella began fussing letting Pam know it wasn’t her favorite position.

“Sometimes if you switch her to the other shoulder, she likes it better,” advises Jackie. Pam makes the switch and little Ella becomes quiet and content. 

“I think when you’re a baby you should be nothing but comforted and loved,” says Pam.

Pam got involved in the program because of her love of infants. After seeing an article on the internet about cuddle programs, she checked all the local hospitals hoping to find the same program. Pam hit the jackpot when she discovered Good Shepherd had a program in the works.

“I truly love infants and just like to hold them and make them feel better,” says Pam. “So I decided to give it (the program) a try. It is a vigorous program to become a volunteer, which I think is good because it shows this is not taken lightly.”

Carol has been a Good Shepherd volunteer on the pediatric inpatient unit for several years. She was drawn to the program as an extension of her 20-year career as an associate teacher in the IU-20 for children with special needs. The now retired mother of three says she makes it a point to volunteer when there are babies on the unit.

“This is my zen,” says Carol. “To come in here and hold the baby is so relaxing. They call me the baby whisperer because when I hold a screaming baby, it stops. I think God gave me this gift to cuddle babies.”

The Cuddle Program is not only making babies and volunteers happy, but staff as well who welcome the extra arms and love the cuddlers bring to the unit. “This is a huge benefit to our patients and our staff,” says Jackie. “It’s a win for our cuddlers. It’s a win for our babies. It’s a win for our staff.”

As baby Ella became more relaxed and her eyelids grew heavy, Jackie transferred her to a stroller which Pam slowly pushed around the unit. Ella soon was sound asleep in a zen world all her own.

“There isn’t a whole lot in the world that makes your heart expand,” says Pam. “Any baby, regardless of who it is, makes your heart expand.”

Photo: Volunteer cuddler Carol Mark with Ella Tuggle.