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The opioid crisis is a monumental problem. According to the U.S. Department of Human Services, in 2016, 11.5 million people in the United States misused
prescription drugs. One hundred and sixteen people died every day (a total of 42,249) in that year from opioid-related drug overdoses.
In 2015, Fauquier Hospital saw six babies in its Intensive Care Nursery (ICN) who were born withdrawing from opioids. In 2016, the number of babies diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) jumped to 19.
Since January, a team of Fauquier Health volunteers has been focused on helping the tiny victims of this big problem. The Cuddlers, a four-person subset of Fauquier Health’s volunteer force, help to provide warmth and security for infants who are born with NAS.
Cheryl Poelma, director of the ICN, said that babies who are born with NAS can be very sick during their first month because they are withdrawing from opioids. “After they are born, they are given medication to help with their withdrawal symptoms. The medication is slowly weaned as the infant improves. Withdrawing can make the infant uncomfortable and irritable. Reducing stimulation and promoting a quiet environment helps these infants recover. Holding and cuddling these infants also helps in their recovery.”
Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics states that for NAS babies, “Swaddling lessens stimulation, decreases crying times, and promotes sleep that is more sustained… Holding, cuddling, and manual rocking also can help.”
Deb Clinard, from Fauquier Health’s Volunteer Services, said that it takes an exceptional person to provide this service. “Cuddlers are required to stay almost completely still for two or more hours, holding an agitated newborn. They have to be able to turn off their emotions while they are working with the babies, and just provide consistent, gentle touch therapy.”
Clinard added that Cuddlers are carefully trained and monitored by the ICN nurses. Cuddlers don’t feed the infants or change diapers. Their job is to hold the babies when their parents or the ICN nurses can’t.
Cuddler Joan Anthony remembered when she was having trouble soothing a newborn. “He was so upset. He had kicked his little legs and arms out of the swaddling and I couldn’t get them back in. One of the nurses showed me how to get him bundled back in and how to hold him closer. I have learned a lot since we began. I am more relaxed now. Our nurses are so good to us, so appreciative of our help.”
Cuddlers are called on an as-needed basis and work for two-hour shifts. Cuddler Jane Steinard said, “Once the baby is placed in our lap, we can’t stand or stretch. Sometimes, when the two hours are up, we will wait until a nurse is free; it means that sometimes we are in that one position for close to three hours.” Steinard smiled, “My stamina has improved a lot since January.”
Cuddler Bette Hine added, “Early on, I couldn’t do it for three hours straight; now I can. You have to hold them very close. As the baby starts to wean off the drugs, and you get more experience with that baby, you see when they are ready to sit up a little.”
Steinard agreed, “As they move through the progression of drugs, the infants get more comfortable, they can handle a little more. We are careful not to rock them and talk to them at the same time. And we can’t have any fragrance on us. They can’t deal with more than one sense at a time.”
Clinard said that would-be Cuddlers must volunteer in other parts of the hospital for six months before they can be considered for the Cuddler program. “I need to get to know them first, to make sure they have the patience, reliability and temperament for such a delicate job. I look for someone who is relaxed and can work as part of a team, someone who can take things in stride and has a very flexible schedule.” Clinard has seven Cuddler hopefuls ready to be trained and would like to eventually have 20 on the team. “Sometimes we know when we will be getting a baby in who needs cuddling, and sometimes there are walk-ins. I’d like to have a robust group to support our ICN nurses, and the parents of these fragile newborns.”