Cuddling babies in intensive care: Volunteers are part of ‘an amazing process’

Irv Williams first got to know the NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit, eight years ago when his grandson needed to spend time there as a newborn. 

Now Williams volunteers alongside the devoted caregivers who helped his grandson at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. His job: spending time cuddling and holding sick or preterm babies until they are well enough to go home.

Williams calls himself a volunteer cuddler, rocker or holder. He spends four to five hours twice a week snuggling babies, singing old camp songs and reading books to them. 

“People might think it’s nutty to be reading to a newborn baby, but it helps with language skills. The environment they’re in is different than home. They’re not hearing voices — they’re hearing beeping machines,” Williams says. 

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Cuddlers do more than provide comfort. Research shows that infants with drugs in their system who were cuddled by volunteers had shorter stays in the hospital than those who weren’t.

Volunteering with children came naturally to Williams, 72, who spent his career in education, working with students ranging from the preschool years through university. 

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“This is a continuation of my career,” says Williams, who has been a NICU cuddler for about four years.

Some infants weigh as little as 2 pounds and spend six months or more in the NICU before they are strong enough to go home.

“I really get to know these little people. It’s an amazing feeling. When you get to know a baby from 2 pounds and it gets to go home — I feel privileged in many ways to witness and participate in the process. It’s an amazing process to watch and be a part of,” Williams says. “To feel their finger curl around yours is an amazing connection.”

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During his shift, Williams focuses on the babies, but he also occasionally meets family members, who sometimes must drive many hours to get to the NICU.

“One mom told me, ‘It gives me such joy that somebody’s holding my baby when I’m not there,’” Williams says. “That almost brought tears to my eyes. It was such an expression of gratitude. But really, the privilege is mine.”

Those interested in volunteering in a NICU should contact the volunteer coordinator at a nearby hospital. The process includes interviews, background checks and training, and there’s often a waiting list for volunteer spots.

Read more about retirement and volunteering:

Traveling, volunteering, and — yes — working. Welcome to unretirement.

These much-loved volunteers swoop in to rescue animals in communities struck by disasters

‘We all need purpose when we wake up in the morning’: Finding meaning in retirement leads to happiness and health

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