Seated in a rocking chair, Sarah Wall took 4-day-old Lucas Wooten into her arms and began to sing quietly to him.

As the tune ended, she was handed a picture book to read to the infant nestled in the crook of her elbow, swaddled in a blanket and wearing a gray stocking cap on his head for warmth.

"We'll read about Snoopy today," she murmured. The newborn cooed in response.

Wall is a member of a new team of volunteers who make up Freeman Health System's cuddlers program. The volunteers have undergone extensive screening and training to be able to spend time with the hospital's most vulnerable patients — the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Cuddlers typically sit with the infants and speak, sing or read to them when the children's parents are unable to do so. They do not feed or change them, nor do they walk around with them, but they are considered part of the NICU care team.

"Leaving a baby in a NICU, whether for one hour or for one day, is difficult for patients," said Paula Baker, president and CEO of Freeman. "The cuddler program helps bridge that gap with a soothing embrace from a caring volunteer."

The program is important because the NICU can be a stressful environment for families and their babies, said Rahul Oberoi, a Freeman neonatologist.

"Physical interaction and physical proximity with babies helps them adjust to being outside the womb, and it helps them long term as far as growth and development is concerned," he said. "A lot of times, parents for a variety of reasons are unable to spend as much time as they would like with their little one while they're in the hospital, and that's where programs such as the cuddler program are so essential at filling that void and helping to ensure that these babies can get contact with loving and caring people who can help their brains and bodies grow and adjust and develop."

To become a volunteer cuddler, adults ages 21 to 70 must go through interview and selection steps with the hospital, a background check, a drug screening and a physical as well as have appropriate immunizations and a flu shot. They also are trained in safety, confidentiality, infection prevention and hand-washing protocols.

The program is sponsored by Children's Miracle Network Hospitals and coordinated by Karen Graham, who was hired by Freeman last summer to develop it. Two of Graham's grandchildren spent time in a NICU, and she has desired for nearly a decade to launch a cuddlers program.

Janet Messner, one of the program's volunteers, knew she wanted to spend her retirement as a cuddler.

"The babies are awesome," she said. "You don't know that feeling until you hold one of those little miracles. Everything that goes on during the day just goes away."

Lucas' parents, Blake and Megan Wooten, of Baxter Springs, Kansas, said it's difficult to leave their newborn — who was born seven weeks premature — in the NICU, but it's also impossible for them to remain at the hospital with him indefinitely.

"I think it's nice for people to volunteer to hold them and give them love when we're not here," Megan Wooten said.

Mercy Hospital Joplin does not have a designated volunteer program for cuddlers, but at least one volunteer there as well as Mercy staff cuddle and spend time with NICU babies when their parents are away, according to a hospital spokesman.

Emily Younker is the assistant metro editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.

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