For many, one of the most rewarding and fulfilling volunteer opportunities out there is cuddling babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. Parents of premature infants try their best to spend as much time as possible in the hospital with their newborn, but it is impossible to spend day and night there with so many obligations in life. These babies on average spend weeks, even months in the hospital for a number of reasons. Babies that have complicated health issues like an underdeveloped heart, lungs and brain or even more serious, like being born addicted to opioids need longer hospital stays.

People who volunteer with babies are also known as “baby cuddlers” because they spend time holding, cuddling, feeding and changing diapers. These volunteers are caring surrogates when parents cannot be there at the most pivotal time of a newborn’s life. When a baby is born premature or born with health issues, during the first few days of life they are literally fighting to stay alive.


Baby cuddling programs can be linked back to studies done in the late 1990’s. One study in 1998 supported the belief that newborns depend on human contact for brain development. Other benefits of a newborn having human contact include but are not limited to better sleep habits, focus and coping mechanisms for dealing with anxiety and stress down the road. This study reveals so much about our innate human needs.

Infant Opioid Withdrawal

Infants born addicted to opioids suffer from withdrawal symptoms, otherwise known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every 25 minutes an infant is born suffering from opioid withdrawal symptoms. The average length of stay for a newborn with NAS is almost three weeks, compared to a healthy baby whose stay averages just two days. Withdrawal symptoms includes seizures, excessive crying, fevers, breathing complications and low birthweight. Most noticeably, a newborn may be fussy and restless. To help sooth and calm the baby, parents or volunteers in this case, are instructed to hold and swaddle the baby in a blanket to comfort and relax them.

Babies born with NAS are helpless and rely on volunteers to help them in this painful, scary time of life. Hospitals have seen a jump in the number of NAS cases and have thus started implementing volunteer programs because of how important human contact can be to the newborn. Though these cuddling programs sound cute and delightful, hospitals depend on these volunteers during this crucial and very serious time. For this, the application process can be lengthy and in-depth. Applicants will have to pass a background check along with submitting their medical records and making sure they are up-to-date on their vaccinations, with each hospital requiring specific vaccines. If accepted, the work done in these programs is highly rewarding and can be life-changing for the babies. There are other volunteer opportunities to consider if you cannot volunteer to be a baby cuddler but would still like to help.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Barbara R. Edwards, M.D., M.P.H. is an attending physician residing in Princeton, NJ. Dr. Edwards received her undergraduate education at the University of Pennsylvania with Summa cum Laude honors. She received her M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1988, and her Master of Public Health degree from Harvard University in 1993. Read more about Dr. Barbara Edwards Princeton, NJ Internist.