SIOUX CITY -- After washing her hands and donning a salmon pink apron, Kris Miltenberger sat in a tan, polka-dotted recliner with open arms, patiently waiting for a nurse in blue scrubs to hand over 4-pound, 8-ounce newborn Elia.
Usually Miltenberger reads thrillers on her Kindle to the babies she cuddles in UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's neonatal intensive care unit, but unfortunately on this day, the mother and grandmother from Sloan, Iowa, has left her e-reader at home. Elia will have to settle for cooing and the soothing sounds of Miltenberger's heartbeat and breathing.
Five years ago, when St. Luke's announced a new volunteer program that would train adults to hold the hospital's smallest patients, Miltenberger eagerly filled out the necessary paperwork, submitted to a background check and welcomed a few needle sticks. Her son and two grandchildren were born at St. Luke's; and she wanted to give back.
Tricia Newton, development director of UnityPoint Health -- St. Luke's Foundation, said the hospital started the Cuddler Program after recognizing a need for additional comfort and care for babies spending an extended period of time in the NICU. When parents or guardians return to work or aren't available to provide valuable skin-to-skin contact for medical of other reasons, Newton said cuddlers like Miltenberger can step in.
"Staff do it as well. Based on the need of other patients or the amount of patients, staff aren't always able to devote that time to cuddle," Newton said. "That's why our volunteers are so important."
Research has shown that human contact -- cuddling, singing lullabies and reading stories -- can improve babies' brain development, as well as help them manage stress, sleep and gain weight. A University of British Columbia study found that holding or not holding infants could even affect their DNA. According to the study, children who experienced more distress as infants and received less physical contact had a molecular profile that was underdeveloped for their age.
Newton said hospital staff ask parents whether volunteers can cuddle their babies, and most, she said, are willing to let them do just that, especially if mom and dad live out of town or have other children at home to care for.
"I know how to do it and I love to do it," Miltenberger reassured of cuddling babies. "Let me help you out and be there when you can't."
Miltenberger, who is one of approximately 20 cuddlers, spends 3 to 3½ hours a week in the NICU holding babies whose parents she'll never meet. Some of the babies she cuddles just once, while others she has held multiple times. Usually the infants nod off right away and there isn't much interaction.
"I say I bore them to death with my stories, because they always go to sleep when I hold them," said Miltenberger, who generally reads the free books she gets on her Kindle every month to babies in a dimly lit patient room under twinkling lights. "I thought about the children's books, and then I thought, 'They don't know what I'm reading.' I pick out the words that aren't appropriate and skip over those. I keep the tone down."
The requirements for being a cuddler go far beyond having a pair of loving arms. After completing the initial application and screening process, volunteers spend two hours with a physical therapist learning how to properly hold a baby. A nurse always removes the swaddled baby from the crib or isolette and places him or her into the cuddler's arms.
Newton said cuddlers need to support a baby's neck and feet while they hold them to their chest. She said the baby's hands should be kept close to his or her face.
Newton said volunteers are also educated about the signs and symptoms of infant distress during training, as well as the various alarms that go off in the NICU. If they need any assistance, a staff member is just a push of a button away.
While the benefits of cuddling for infants are substantial, Newton said volunteers, the majority of whom are retirees, also reap rewards.
"Some volunteers have said the program gave them purpose," she said. "It's one thing to assist filing papers, but to hold a newborn and know that you're helping them grow and thrive is truly rewarding for our volunteers."