CORAL SPRINGS, FL – Mimi Milton brings the tiny baby girl to her chest, pressing the infant so close that she can feel the heartbeat. She talks to the swaddled baby, telling her she’s loved. She sings gently until the child falls asleep.
They sit there together in a rocking chair -- sometimes for up to an hour or more -- inside the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Salah Foundation Children’s Hospital at Broward Health Coral Springs, a nursery that provides around-the-clock care to sick or premature babies.
The baby’s mother isn’t there, so Milton serves as the child’s “cuddler,” giving the baby time and attention to help regulate her temperature, heart rate, and breathing.
“Sometimes the baby will open her eyes and look up at you. It’s amazing,” Milton said.
Milton is one of five active volunteers in the new NICU cuddler program at the hospital.
Started last summer, the program has volunteers who come in for four-hour shifts to hold the babies, talk to them, sing to them, and just be in their presence while their mothers and families rest at home, work or take care of life’s chores, said Kathleen Byrne, a nurse and coordinator of community education and volunteer services at the hospital.
Research shows that cuddling is vital to a child's emotional well-being and can help babies with developmental and social milestones, such as greater self-esteem and increased learning ability. Some studies have even found that premature babies who are cuddled often have greater growth and shorter hospital stays than babies who have not been cuddled.
“It’s not what you say to the baby. It’s just that you are there and can talk to the babies and they can hear you,” Byrne said.
Milton, 63, jumped at the opportunity to be a cuddler and nurture babies as small as three pounds with heads the size of an adult fist.
With her two children grown and long out of the house, she longed to be around babies again. A native of the Boston suburbs, she’s worked as a program administrator for much of her life, many years at a church and now at Coral Springs Youth Soccer.
“At the church, I was the baby stealer,” she said, laughing about the times she’d take the visiting babies and hold them in her arms for as long as she could. “I love babies. I have a connection with them.”
She comes to the NICU a few times a week. The routine is the same: she’ll scrub down, put on a gown, and then sit with baby, all under the supervision of the medical staff.
With the baby in her arms, she’ll start talking and see where the conversation goes. Sometimes she’ll sing nursery rhymes, not knowing all the words.
“The baby doesn’t care,” she said. “She just wants you there.”
In the end, the baby isn’t the only one benefiting, Byrne said.
“We get a bigger reward as a volunteer,” she said.