Cuddlers have best job on the planet

Comforting tiny babies helps their development
Aug. 16, 2016

Bruce Erickson might have the best volunteer job on the planet.

Multiple times a month, Erickson comes to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Hospital, covers his chest and arm in a swaddling blanket and receives a tiny baby to cradle in his arms.

“It’s slightly addicting,’’ said Erickson, who earns a living as an engineer. “Frankly, it’s the calmest part of my entire week.’’

On a recent morning, Erickson held Evan Anthony Aldrich – a beautiful boy who weighed in May 15 at one pound, 13 ounces.

“We call him Evan from Heaven,’’ said nurse Annmarie Burke.

Erickson, who has volunteered for 21 years at Memorial and was named Children’s Hospital Colorado’s volunteer of the year in Colorado Springs, is a pro with the little ones.

“Shhhhh,’’ Erickson said, trying to comfort the child. “It’s alright.’’

Bruce Erickson, a volunteer cuddler at Memorial Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, holds Evan Anthony Aldrich, known affectionately at the hospital as “Evan from Heaven.’’
In a few moments, Evan settled in to Erickson’s warmth. The baby’s heart rate dropped, and his oxygen intake increased.

Bruce Erickson, a volunteer cuddler at Memorial Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, holds Evan Anthony Aldrich, known affectionately at the hospital as “Evan from Heaven.’’

Dr. Kara Murphy, a neonatologist at Memorial, said that cuddling not only comforts babies, but it helps in their development.

“It’s really important,’’ Murphy said.  “When babies are crying, they use extra calories. Calming them down helps them to use those calories to grow and develop. That’s one of the most important things that you do for babies when they are preemies — help them use those calories to grow and develop their organs,’’ Murphy said.

Children have physiological responses when they are being cuddled and spoken to in a soft voice.

“Our monitors show that when the babies are picked up and cuddled by their cuddlers and their parents, you can see them better regulate their temperature and their heart rate. Their breathing slows down and everything calms,’’ Murphy said.

Memorial currently has 29 volunteer cuddlers in the NICU. They volunteer in three-hour shifts, some starting as early as 5 a.m. and staying as late as 11 p.m. Cuddlers start by volunteering for three to six months in pediatrics before being considered for a cuddler role. Cuddlers receive general volunteer orientation and training and specialized cuddler training.

“We feel that cuddlers are an integral part of the care that we give,’’ Murphy said. “We have patients who are here for weeks and sometimes, months at a time. Life goes on when babies are admitted to the NICU, and parents have responsibilities outside of the hospital and some cannot be here as often as they would like to be.’’

Shelley Aldrich, Evan’s mother, has three other children. She and her husband alternate daily visits to the hospital, and they make it nearly every day. Nonetheless, when they’re not visiting Evan in the NICU, they’re grateful for people like Erickson and others who volunteer.

Dr. Kara Murphy
Dr. Kara Murphy, a neonatologist at Memorial Hospital, says cuddling not only comforts babies but also helps in their development.

“It provides peace of mind for me to have someone comfort him when my husband and I are not here. The nurses here have done a wonderful job and it’s extremely comforting and reassuring to know that people are here for him,’’ Aldrich said.

Erickson, who spends about 200 hours a year volunteering at the hospital, said he loves the job.

“For parents, this is a stressful place but, for me, this is my happy place,’’ he said. “Engineering is a high-tech, low-touch job so I need a low-tech, high-touch volunteer job just to balance out.

“It’s such a powerful positive reinforcement. The nurse may hand you a baby who is crying. I’ll watch the monitor, and I can see the baby’s heart rate slow down and the oxygen go up. It’s such a tremendous, positive thing for a baby,’’ Erickson said.

For the little boy named “Evan from Heaven,’’ the cuddling has helped him use his calories to grow.

After two months in the NICU, the boy who is now 38 weeks old, counting the time he spent in the womb, has steadily improved.

He now weighs in at 5 pounds, 15 ounces. In a few days, he’ll go home.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.