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Cuddlers wanted: St. Elizabeth program seeking volunteers to cuddle newborns in NICU

Posted at 1:15 PM, Jul 21, 2014
and last updated 2017-07-17 07:15:54-04

EDGEWOOD, Ky. – Baby coos and faint echoes of crying can be heard throughout the baby blue hallways at the St. Elizabeth neonatal intensive care unit and volunteers like Jessica Banish and her mom Brenda Palmer visit with these ailing newborns giving them the best medicine: cuddles.

The new Cuddler Program at St. Elizabeth’s Edgewood campus is hoping to wrangle a few more volunteers like the mother-daughter duo to staff the unit 24-7.

Cuddling is a vital element to babies treated there, Tracy Burch, registered nurse and nurse manager for the neonatal intensive care unit, said.

“They just entered this world from a comfy womb and are used to having a touch—it’s comforting to have a therapeutic touch when their arms and legs are flailing like they’re reaching out,” she said.

“It comforts them to let them know they’re not alone.”

Calming Babies, The Best Medicine

After thoroughly scouring up to their elbows with lathering soap and hot water, then slathering up with a healthy dollop of clear, alcohol-infused disinfectant goo, on both hands, Banish, 38, and Palmer, 63, put on their scrubs and affix their volunteer badges, ready to go to work.

“To hold a baby, [it’s] just a wonderful feeling,” said Palmer, a grandmother to 11, eight of whom were born at St. Elizabeth.

She and Banish, a mother of three boys, walk into the hushed room where two babies are in a deep slumber in their white cribs.

Twins Sophie and Shane were born in early July at 34 weeks and weighed 4 lbs., 4 oz., and 5 lbs., 5 oz., respectively. 

In the dimly lit room, the volunteers take their seats in two rocking chairs. As they are handed the small bundles of tightly swaddled babies, who are just seven days old, they instinctively begin rocking slowly, back and forth.

As Palmer rocks Shane his face wrinkles, his brow furrows and he begins moving his hand around and up to his mouth, eyes never peeking open.

“It’s baby-mares,” Palmer said smiling.

“To me it’s good for the babies,” said Palmer of Crestview Hills, who said she talks to the babies while rocking them. “I fell like I’m helping the parents, the nurses and it leaves me feeling good.”

“When a baby is crying, I feel like something’s hurting or they’re uncomfortable and when they calm down, I feel like I’ve helped them overcome something,” Palmer said.

Babies need human contact and when nurses are helping treat other babies, volunteers can step in and give the tiny patients exactly what they need, Burch said.

Evidence has shown, she said, that human touch will help babies go home sooner. The contact impacts them, just knowing that someone’s caring for them. It’s a sense of securement, she said.

“Babies left crying don’t develop the same as babies comforted. It’s important for development in a positive way,” Burch said.

Currently the program has 18 volunteers, but Burch said they would like to have 12 per day for ‘round-the-clock coverage, as they are scheduled in two-hour increments and on average have about 15 babies on any given day in the unit.

“The cuddlers are really important. They lighten the nurses’ load,” Burch said. “We take care of sick and critical babies, and the cuddlers can just hold babies when parents aren’t available.”

The majority of the babies in the NICU don’t have parents who can stay with their babies around the clock, she said. So volunteers are of the upmost importance.

And the more volunteers they have for each hour, the easier the babies are to comfort over time, Burch said.

Palmer cuddles on Mondays and Banish volunteers on Fridays from 3-5, right after work. There’s a reason she chose that day and time to rock babies.

“It takes me out of the rushed world we live in and is a wonderful way to start the weekend with my family. I feel like I hit a reset button,” Banish of Florence, said of ending her week with a baby in her arms.

Banish tears up while talking about the babies.

“The human connection. I love my little boys to death and if I can help a little baby here… it just fills your heart with joy,” she said.

Mom agreed.

“Come in on a bad day, just walking through and just seeing the babies puts you in a different world. It puts everything into perspective. They’re just so innocent and sweet,” Palmer said. “You will give as much if not more than they give [back].”

Volunteers do not have to live in Kentucky, but must be at least 17 years old. If you are interested in volunteering at St. Elizabeth, visit

For more stories and photos by Jessica Noll on issues impacting Northern Kentucky, visit or follow her on Twitter @JessicaWCPO.

Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community. If you would like to tell your story, or know someone who should, email Jessica Noll at