Researchers use science of cuddling to counter drug withdrawal in babies

Researchers at a downtown Toronto hospital are turning to mothers’ tried and true methods for calming their babies to help counter the effects on babies born to parents with drug addictions.

17 cuddlers volunteer full-time and a long waiting list of prospective cuddlers hope to join them

Volunteer cuddles

10 years ago
Duration 2:11
Bob Parry gives parents a break by offering soothing snuggles to sick kids at CHEO.

Researchers at a downtown Toronto hospital are turning to the science of cuddling to help babies born to mothers with drug addictions.

A team at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto first noticed that the condition of newborns with withdrawal syndrome seemed to improve when they were held. That's when they decided to take a closer look.

"It calms the babies. They breathe better," says nurse practitioner Karen Carlyle at the Family Support Program in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, who sees about two babies per month born with an opiate addiction.

In November, Carlyle's team decided to recruit cuddle volunteers to help soothe babies in the unit and are tracking whether cuddling can help shorten a baby's stay in hospital.

Carlyle and social worker Amanda Hignell have created an extensive manual for volunteers complete with simulations and steps showing how to respond to common conditions, infant cues and how to prevent infection.

They now have 17 cuddlers who volunteer full-time with a lengthy waiting list of prospective cuddlers hoping to join them.

"We do give[the babies]morphine to mitigate the effects of withdrawal and prevent seizures," Carlyle says. But she's noticed that the infants also respond well to being held.

Volunteer cuddlers also mean comfort for parents

During cuddling sessions at the Family Support Program at St. Michael's Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, volunteers soothe, sing and read to the babies while holding them.

The program runs seven days a week with a morning shift from 9 a.m. to noon and an afternoon block from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. During cuddling sessions, volunteers soothe, sing and read to the babies while holding them.

The researchers say they should have a better understanding of the health benefits of cuddling in about six months.

Meanwhile, the project is also providing comfort to newborns' parents who may be unable to be with their babies because they live outside Toronto or who are themselves hospitalized.

The volunteers seem to be enjoying the cuddle-time too.

Hallis Sheridan spends one day a week doing what she can to help.

"If there's a little baby with a problem and cuddling is going to help, that's where you want to be," Sheridan says.


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