A very special group of volunteers is filling a little-known need at hospitals here in the Treasure Valley. They are volunteer baby cuddlers, and they help infants in the NICU start off strong by loving on them when the babies' parents can't be there.
One of these cuddlers is grandmother Bonita Wohlers. The retired nurse comes in once a week as part of the St. Luke's Cuddler Program. “A St. Luke's cuddler,” says Bonita, “provides...comfort, safety, reassurance to parents."
St. Luke's NICU nurse Claire Peterson agrees. “[The cuddlers] are a group of wonderful people that have been specially trained to come to the nicu and hold our babies."
Peterson says the cuddlers are essential to helping these fragile little lives start off strong, since physical touch offers proven benefits to babies. "They calm really well, they sleep better, they sleep for longer periods,” Peterson says, “which is especially important for babies who are growing and developing when they sleep.”
The volunteers soothe newborns dealing with anything from low birth weight, to reflux, to some who've just had surgery or are dealing with addiction issues passed on by the mother. Bonita's been cuddling valley babies for nearly four years now. "I get more from this than the baby ever gets," she says.
Peterson admits it's no surprise that Bonita is such a natural at soothing these tiny patients. “Grandmas,” Peterson laughs. “[They] are the best people to hold babies. It's what they do the best."
And while the cuddling program is meant to benefit the babies,Bonita says she's really the lucky one in this scenario. “What a special job this is,” she says. “Just the look in their eyes - they look up at you like you're the beginning and the end."
The cuddler program has been in place at St. Luke's for the last 10 years and has become one of their most sought-after volunteer programs. In fact, it's so popular that it has an extensive waitlist and spots rarely open up, so organizers want to stress, there is no need for new cuddlers right now.