Need a snuggle? Vulnerable infants bond with volunteer cuddlers

A volunteer cuddler program at Toronto's St. Michael's hospital helps babies in the neonatal intensive care unit when their parents can't be there.

'The power of human touch is extraordinary,' says Toronto pediatrician of hospital's baby-cuddling program

Julia Gluck volunteers her time as a cuddler at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. She says it's like 'being in heaven.' (Kas Roussy)

Julia Gluck has a date with a special little guy. But today he's running a bit late.

He's preoccupied by other urgent matters, it appears, giving a good humoured nurse a rough time, by peeing — not once, but twice — in her general direction. And all she was trying to do was change his diaper.

Finally, little baby Zayn is delivered to the outstretched arms of Gluck. He's wearing a navy blue shirt emblazoned with the words "Our little man" and a pair of matching pants. The wait was worth it.

"Here we go," says Gluck, getting comfortable in a rocking chair. "You're going to cuddle with me today."

The 66-year old Toronto woman is a volunteer cuddler at St. Michael's Hospital. The program was developed about a year ago to provide babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) with some extra tender loving care.

The anatomy of a yawn, courtesy of seven-week-old baby Zayn, who was born at just 31 weeks gestation on Aug. 18. Julia Gluck is a volunteer cuddler at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

"Families can't always be in the unit 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says pediatrician Tony Barozzino. "Sometimes it's just because of logistics ... some of them have children at home that they're caring for while they have a sick child in the hospital. Sometimes the mothers themselves will have their own physical issues after delivery that requires them to be either hospitalized, or resting at home."

Gluck is a natural. An old Hebrew lullaby she sang to her own son when he was younger does the trick. Soon baby Zayn's eyelids are closing.

At the entrance to the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Michael's Hospital, a sign announces that day's volunteer cuddler. (Kas Roussy)

"Oh, big yawn," Gluck murmurs. "You're a tired guy. It's hard work growing up."

Zayn had a rough start. (For privacy reasons, his mother prefers we not use his full name.) Born prematurely at 31 weeks, he's been at the hospital's NICU for about two months. His mother has two teenagers at home, so when volunteers like Gluck step in, it's a lifesaver.

'It's like a second mother'

"When I go home, someone's here cuddling him and loving him just as much as me," she told CBC News. "It's like a second mother."

Gluck, a volunteer cuddler, holds baby Zayn's tiny hand. He was born prematurely at 31 weeks. (Kas Roussy)

There are about 20 volunteer cuddlers at St. Michaels and just as many on a waiting list. The would-be cuddlers are thoroughly vetted, going through extensive medical and police background checks.

There are guidelines too for hospitals wanting to develop their own volunteer infant cuddling program, endorsed by the Canadian Association of Paediatric Health Centres.

Gluck, a grandmother who started volunteering as a baby cuddler in January, says she ends her shifts feeling 'so calm and so refreshed.'

Besides preemies, other babies at St. Michael's Hospital face serious challenges. They are born to disadvantaged mothers with mental health and drug addiction issues, says Dr. Barozzino.

Out of 550 babies admitted to the unit, about 7 per cent suffer from narcotic withdrawal syndrome, he says.

Human touch improves outcomes for babies

But regardless of background, all vulnerable babies benefit from the healing powers of a touch.

"Human touch can lower your heart rate as a newborn," says Dr. Barozzino. "It can improve your neonatal mental health. It can improve your weight gain. It can improve their ability to tolerate their environment because there's less stress and stimulation."

"Oh my word, was that a wink?" Awake from his nap, Gluck's tiny charge is animated — much to her delight. "Did you wink at me?" Her cuddling time with baby Zayn is coming to an end.

I walk out of here so calm and refreshed. It's way easier than paying for therapy. I can tell you that!- Julia Gluck, baby cuddler

"It's like being in heaven," she says. "I walk out of here so calm and so refreshed. It's way easier than paying for therapy. I can tell you that!"

Zayn is returned to his nurse. Gluck takes off her hospital gown, and dons a baseball cap with the word "Bubbie," yiddish for grandma. She's expecting her second grandchild in the new year.

"It's the most wonderful thing,' she says about being a cuddler. "How to give back I think is a challenge to a lot of people. This is the almost perfect way of giving back."

For Zayn's family, there will be an unexpected addition at the Thanksgiving table. Baby Zayn — whose original due date was October 19 — was discharged just in time for the holiday.


Kas Roussy

Former CBC reporter

Kas Roussy was a senior reporter with the Health unit at CBC News. In her more than 30 years with CBC, Kas’s reporting took her around the globe to cover news in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chile, Haiti and China, where she was the bureau producer.