These babies need to be held and soothed to get better — sign us up.
When a baby is born addicted to the prescription or illicit drugs their mothers took during gestation, the first days of life become a battle to stay alive.
Addicted newborns might spend weeks, if not months, in the hospital. Some are alone in the fight — their mothers are oftentimes fighting their own demons and are too unwell to care for an infant. Getting to the other side of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) requires a steady and slow withdrawal program, mitigated by decreasing doses of oral morphine or methadone. That’s no small feat, and for babies just days old, it’s painful, scary and lonely.
In Pennsylvania, when more and more babies were born with substance-abuse issues (the rate soaring 250% from 2000 to 2015), Jane Cavanaugh knew that something had to be done. A nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital for 42 years, Cavanaugh created a program that enlists volunteers to hold, cuddle and soothe newborns in the throes of withdrawal.
“These babies going through withdrawal need to be held for extended periods,” Cavanaugh told Philly.com. “They need human touch. They need soothing. They need talking.”
After news of Cavanaugh’s program went live on a local news site, dozens of Pennsylvania readers wrote in to see how they might become one of her newborn snugglers. The program quickly maxed out.
But, you might still be able to participate in your own area. Most local hospitals have volunteer programs — a quick Internet search should tell you everything you need to know and applications are usually available online. There’s also always the option of calling the hospital and asking for volunteer services. Hospitals in Chicago and California (in addition to many more!) offer similar programs.
Not every hospital has a newborn cuddling program, per se, but there might be other ways to help out in the NICU. It is also possible, of course, that your local hospital doesn’t need volunteers (Jefferson’s cuddling program won’t open again to new volunteers until July 2017). If that’s the case, look for local women and children’s shelters, which oftentimes offer services for mothers battling addiction. There is always a way to help.
As Cavanaugh’s volunteer program demonstrates, helping newborns with opioid dependency isn’t always about holding and snuggling the babies. Volunteers at Jefferson often serve as liaisons between the children and parents, who oftentimes feel stigmatized by nurses and doctors.
“When I see parents,” Addy Schultz, a 72-year-old volunteer, told Philly.com, “I say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful baby,’ and ‘Congratulations.’ They’re doing the best they can.”