Hospital Has Specialists in Baby Hugging

United Press International

The white-haired woman cooing to a baby in the hospital’s newborn intensive care nursery is not a hospital employee. She’s a volunteer cuddler.

Virginia Johnson, a grandmother, is one of several volunteers at California Medical Center--the first hospital in the Los Angeles area to establish a program to help babies adjust to the cold, harsh world outside the womb.

Wendy Free, director of volunteer services, says it is often impossible for an infant’s parents to spend as much time with the baby as they would like. Complications that lead to extended hospital stays for newborns keep nurses too busy with medical care to hum lullabies and give them a gentle squeeze.

‘The Extra Boost’


That is where the cuddlers come in.

“They give the extra boost that the babies need,” head nurse Lisa Bollman said. “The nurses can sure tell the difference.

“It’s amazing what just picking a baby up and holding it can do.”

The volunteers are all carefully screened and trained in such essentials as infection control and the use of the equipment in the newborn intensive care unit.


During their orientation they are also taught how to hold, stroke, talk to and otherwise stimulate an infant, although many of the volunteers learned those skills long ago with their own children and grandchildren.

Johnson, who if pushed a bit admits she is 70, has a daughter and three teen-age grandsons.

“But it had been awhile since I got to cuddle a baby,” she said. “I do this for a very selfish reason. It is very gratifying. They make me feel good.”

Johnson believes she is helping babies grow into healthier and happier children.


“It’s very important,” she said. “They need to know there is a human who cares. When they cry, they need to know someone will take care of them.”

The volunteers each spend about four hours one day each week in the nursery holding, stroking, rocking, talking and singing to the babies. They also help with the feeding, bathing and diaper-changing.

There are an average of 250 deliveries a month at California Medical Center, a large hospital just south of downtown. On a typical day three dozen tiny patients will be in the nursery.

Some of the babies born prematurely or with other complications must stay in incubator-like units for months.


Socially Isolated

“All they’ve known is pain sometimes,” Bollman said. “They’re socially isolated for long periods of time. A touch or even a human voice is very important. You need to learn as an infant how to trust people. The cuddlers can teach that.

“Part of our goal is to provide for all the baby’s needs. The philosophy has changed a lot. Now we see more and more the need to treat the whole baby.”

Everyone involved in the program, which was begun 16 months ago, believes it has been a great success, and Free said other hospitals in the area are “very interested” in trying something similar.


California Medical Center has a long list of volunteers waiting to become cuddlers, she said.

Free conceived of the program when a friend at another hospital told her about a similar experiment at her workplace that had proved successful.

“I knew that because of our location we had a lot of parents who couldn’t spend a lot of time with their newborns,” Free said.

Cuddlers range in age from 21 to 75. Nearly all are women, but there is one “grandparent-age” man who joined the program with his wife.


Most of the women are mothers, some are grandmothers and some have no children of their own. Some are students, some are retirees and others work in a variety of occupations.

“But they all love the babies,” Bollman said.