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What We Can Learn From Cuddling Premature Babies

Sleeping infant holding adult finger

Editors’ NoteAlmost 500,000 premature babies are born in the United States each year, and those infants often struggle during their first hours and days of life. To help offer comfort to both “preemies” and their frequently exhausted parents, Einstein medical students banded together to form the Cuddling Club, a group of more than 30 students who volunteer time at the neonatal intensive care unit of Montefiore’s Jack D. Weiler Hospital, located on the Einstein campus. Here, second-year medical students Jenny Wang and Caitlyn Williams share the club’s origins and goals. Each offers a unique perspective on cuddling, and together they chronicle their experiences.

by Caitlyn Williams and Jenny Wang 

Caitlyn: The first time I held a baby in the hospital was when I was 5 years old. My brother, born only a few hours earlier, relaxed into my arms, drifting to sleep with a hint of a smile forming on his mouth. Even at that young age I could feel how much I connected with him simply by holding him, talking to him and letting him know I was there. In the spring of 2013 I joined a group of 33 Einstein medical students, including Jenny, and we started the Einstein Cuddling Club. It’s designed to provide comfort for the babies who need it most—those who must spend the first days, weeks or even months of their lives in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Montefiore Medical Center.

These babies are often born premature and have a variety of medical issues, typically including underdevelopment of the physical senses. These fragile little ones need care and company day and night. The Cuddling Club provides these babies with nurturing physical contact when their parents go home for the night to care for their other children or to get some sleep. Maybe they are preparing for work the next day. We are there to provide relief to both babies and parents.

When a baby is born premature, the child is brought into an extremely stress-provoking world. The senses of preemies— including hearing, sight and smell—can all be underdeveloped. These babies face physical challenges as well; they are more prone to serious complications than nonpremature babies.

Research has shown that cuddling can help alleviate the stress of medical procedures and tests that premature babies typically endure. All members of the Cuddling Club receive training on how to hold and care for these tiny patients. Though it’s not part of our schedule, most of the students we’ve spoken with are happy to take time out of their busy schedules to go to the NICU during the late evening hours to cuddle the babies. The students find great joy in working with the nurses to cradle squirmy, fussy preemies to sleep.

Jenny: The first time I cuddled a baby in Montefiore’s NICU, I was filled with an overwhelming appreciation for life. In my arms lay a child carefully swaddled in a tiny yellow blanket with a matching yellow hat. As he looked up, smiled at me and yawned, I realized that we were giving each other precious gifts. I supplied him with touch and calmness to ease and stabilize his emotions. He supplied me with soothing comfort to help relieve my stress from a long day of study.

Medical students often struggle with learning large amounts of material at breakneck speed and studying for exams. But the anxieties of the day can melt away when a baby is cuddled. The experience allows us the chance to take a deep breath and realize why we came to medical school in the first place.

Holding these preemies, we are constantly reminded of why we want to become physicians—to care for those fighting for their lives.

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  • Roxana Amery December 28, 2013, 12:02 PM

    I have never thought cuddling could help premature babies to reduce their stress. It is even more beatiful but at the same time , it is even more surprising to notice that there is a cuddling club. I had a great feeling and a wonderful experience when I gave my hand to my cousin’s son so I marvel what it si to cuddle a baby that is not a relative. I think this is a great club and a great idea, helping others is always pleaseant and if it is a baby it is more nice.

    • Carmen Rivera April 19, 2014, 12:43 PM

      After 3 attempts, I found the courage to finally enter the NICU and meet my 1290 gms, 27 week old son. Nikolas seemed a name too big for this “little” boy, yet the meaning of “warrior” is who he truly is. I hesitated to touch him, although all the fibers of my being screamed out “do it!” The head nurse, with very long nails, stroked his little hand, which wore his nameband. She invited me to stroke him gently and speak his name, saying to him, “Nikolas, Mami’s here!” This is how it all started – he responded by holding on to life and to my finger. As the days went on, I was brought to sit on a rocker, where I sat and sang nursery rhymes, and it seemed as though our respiration rhythm became as one. He gained weight and knowledge of familiar voices, he graduated from room to room, demonstrating gradual improvement and development. Yes, the cuddling and handling from such caring nurses and myself soon brought him to graduation day, the day he was discharged and brought home. That was August 13th, 1985, almost 29 years ago. There was so much we battled together due to his prematurity, his urgency to be born and discover life. Now he’s all of 6 feet, married, a Sgt – USMC and father of two little ones, whom he enjoys cuddling ever so much. I want to thank Mary McCourt and Regina, for as you cuddled Nikolas, you also cuddled me.