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Eskenazi Health To Expand Neonatal Intensive Care Cuddle Babies Program With $10k Grant

Mary Robins-Nierste holds baby Aylin in the neonatal intensive care unit at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis for the cuddle babies volunteer program

Mary Robins-Nierste holds baby Aylin in the neonatal intensive care unit at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis for the cuddle babies volunteer program. (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News)

When retired nurse Mary Robbins-Nierste heard about Eskenazi Health's "Cuddle Buddies" volunteer program, she jumped at the opportunity.

"I retired and I wanted to do some volunteer work," Robbins-Nierste says. "I found a couple things around the city and then they started this program and I was right there, first one."

The program allows volunteers to hold babies placed in the neonatal intensive care unit. Similar projects are becoming popular across the country, and the Eskenazi one is expanding thanks to a $10,000 grant from Huggies. 

Eskenazi Health officials say the program helps infant development through human touch.

A study conducted by the Canadian Association of Pediatric Health Centers indicates infants can experience improved sleep, faster growth, lower pain levels and shorter hospital stays – just by being held.

Ten-day-old baby Aylin is a resident of the neonatal intensive care unit, and one of the newborns that uses a cuddle buddy.

"Some of them you can just feel them relax when you’re holding them and you just know that it’s a good thing to be doing for them, and I was amazed at that when I first started," Robbins-Nierste says. 

But she says it's not just the babies that benefit from this program.

"It just has this calming effect on me." 

The service is offered when parents and family members have obligations that take them away from the hospital. Robbins-Nierste comes into the hospital once a week for a three-hour shift, and has volunteered with the program for more than a year.

"I certainly look forward to my Thursdays, it’s certainly my favorite day of the week," she says. "I do other volunteer things but this is certainly my favorite."

Since receiving the Huggies No Baby Unhugged grant, Eskenazi Health has had to create a waiting list for the influx of volunteers interested in becoming a cuddle buddy.

Volunteers must be 18-years-old and non-smokers. They also must complete a full volunteer onboarding process.

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