Kathleen Jones might have the sweetest volunteer job ever. The grandmother in Chicago donates some of her time to cuddling babies in the neonatal intensive care unit who are too small or sick to go home.
"You can see them calm, you can see their heart rate drop, you can see their little brows relax," the 52-year-old woman who is a cuddler at University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital told the Associated Press. "They're fighting so hard and they're undergoing all this medical drama and trauma. My heart breaks for them a little bit."
Evelyn Steadman, 7-months old, sleeps on the chest of her grandmother, Kathleen Jones, at the baby's home in Crete, Ill. on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Jones, 52, is a longtime volunteer who cuddles newborn babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital. In August 2013 after Evelyn was born with brain damage due to a virus, she ended up in Comer's neonatal intensive care unit and, in addition to many family members, ended up being cuddled by volunteers also. Research shows that cuddling helps calm the babies, many who are born prematurely or who have serious health issues, and aids in their early development. The family says they have little doubt the extra cuddling helped Evelyn. (AP/Martha Irvine)
And she's not the only one who seeks to comfort the hospitals littlest patients. The AP reported that other grandmothers, college students and empty-nesters often step in, filling a void when the infant's parents aren't able to be there and when nurses have other jobs to do.
"I just kind of hold them close to me ... and talk to them, sharing my day, or give them little pep talks," Nancy Salcido, a cuddler at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California whose own daughters are all grown up, told the AP. "One of the nurses has nicknamed me the baby whisperer."
Volunteers expressed that they get just as much of a benefit from cuddling babies as the baby does from their touch. (Image source: YouTube)
It's not all women either.
"It's quite a blessing for me. I get more out of it than the babies, I think," Frank Dertz, a 74-year-old who cuddles at the Chicago hospital, said.
Chris Tryon was born prematurely himself and cuddles at Golisano Children's Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., because he wants to "give back," the AP reported.
Watch this video about the cuddling programs:
The AP pointed out that with these patients being so vulnerable, in many ways, there are strict guidelines and procedures for cuddlers. Parents first agree to allowing their baby to be cuddled and the volunteers have background checks and special training, which includes lessons in swaddling, working around equipment a baby might be hooked up to and sanitary guidelines.
Several studies going back decades point to the benefits of human touch on babies.