Holding a newborn can provide a wonderful feeling, especially when the hugs are helping them heal.
That is why Island Health launched a baby hugging program at Victoria General Hospital. There, in a nursery in the neonatal intensive care unit, volunteer “huggers” can be found affectionately embracing high-risk infants.
As the first hospital on the West Coast to introduce the Huggies No Baby Unhugged program, a national initiative, it is already seeing success in British Columbia.
Dr. Jeff Bishop with Victoria General said research has shown an imperative part of an infant’s development is from human touch.
“We know with [premature babies] that skin-to-skin contact is so important, to the extent that we’re actually changing the way we do neonatal resuscitation,” said Bishop, a physician in the pediatric intensive care unit.
In the past, babies were immediately whisked away from their mothers and resuscitated, he said.
“Now, most of that resuscitation is taking place in bed with mom.”
Bishop added physical touch can help premature babies gain weight faster, stay warmer, stave off infections and regulate their heart rates, as well as reduce the need for chemical interventions with these toddlers.
“Our model for years was very much to admit the kids, sedate them heavily and allow their bodies to recover,” said Bishop. “We found that doesn’t work well.
“We’re now aiming for the minimum level of sedation, the minimum level of medication and drugs that we need to use, to keep the kids safe. And often parents or personal interaction plays a huge role in that.”
Families are traveling from across Vancouver Island to receive this specialized care, which also offers parents valuable rest during this time of high stress, in addition to peace of mind knowing their children are in good hands.
“These are the most critically ill kids from around the Island and they’re flown in from the smaller communities around the Island and arrive here and their parents are often exhausted,” said Bishop.
“If [the parents] don’t know that their kids are loved and receiving the contact they need, they can’t leave and often don’t feel comfortable taking care of themselves.”
Volunteers are cuddling, playing with the babies, and giving them extra love for several hours at a time, thus leading to healthier and happier boys and girls who recently made a debut into the world.
Charmaine Niebergall, manager of volunteer resources, said anyone who takes part in the baby-hugging program is interviewed, provides references, and undergoes a criminal record check.
A similar program at Toronto’s St. Michael’s hospital received praise when it was launched two years ago.
“This practice is already a standard of care in many U.S. regions,” said nurse practitioner Karen Carlyle. “Based on the evidence and success, St. Michael’s has also recently made the program a standard in our NICU – which is really exciting. This initiative is different because the volunteers have physical contact with patients in an intensive care environment. We worked closely with volunteer services and have been selective in the hiring process. Successful volunteers completed health screenings, a police background check, interviews and a half-day training session.”