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Intensive Cuddle Unit

A female volunteer sits and cuddles a premature baby in Lenox Hill Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. To their right, a neonatal occupational therapist crouches to assist.
From right: Dana Fern, neonatal occupational therapist, trains Cynthia Jeffers—the first volunteer cuddler.

Volunteers help preemies develop by 'treating' them with cuddles in Lenox Hill Hospital's Neonatal ICU

It can be wrenching for a brand-new parent to have to leave their  premature baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Often, parents can’t stay with their baby in the unit 24/7, and leaving him or her in the hospital can take an emotional toll.

That’s where the new volunteer cuddler program at Lenox Hill’s NICU comes in. Moms and dads can rest easy knowing that when they leave the NICU to either go home to their older children, back to work, or for any reason, their baby is getting plenty of nurturing attention from  trained volunteers.

One such volunteer is Cynthia Jeffers, who recently retired after 40 years as a Lenox Hill nurse, and the program’s first volunteer.

“I worked on the postpartum floor, where mothers who just had their babies stayed,” Ms. Jeffers said. “I hoped to do something with babies so when I heard about the new cuddler program, I thought it would be a perfect fit.”

She was right about that. Justine Lewis, director of volunteer services at Lenox Hill, said that the cuddler program requires a special kind of volunteer.

“We are very selective of the volunteers that go into the NICU — we want the best of the best,” she said. “Volunteers go through the normal orientation, as well as a second intensive two-hour training in addition to a day where they shadow Dana Fern, so they know exactly what they need to do.”

Ms. Fern, a neonatal occupational therapist at Lenox Hill, said she’d always wanted to start a cuddler program, knowing that this kind of contact helps support premature babies’ social and physical development. While other Northwell Health hospitals have such programs, Lenox Hill had not started its own yet.

“We wanted to create a volunteer program that supports the NICU staff,” she said. “Volunteers can provide that much needed human interaction for these babies, as well as help with pre-feeding and motor development. Knowing there is someone to hold and provide comfort to their babies makes a huge difference, for both the babies and the moms.”

Ms. Jeffers, with her experience as a nurse, said that she loves coming in to be with the babies.

“Just holding these babies, talking to them, or reading or singing to them is wonderful,” she said. “I’m glad I’m able to help them with their development. And I’m also glad that I can help give their mothers some peace of mind, too.”

Cuddles comfort preemies and their families
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