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Cuddlers soothe babies in Sacred Heart's NICU

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Photo source: Channel 3's Kathryn Daniel

Newborns who need to be in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, often must be hospitalized for months. During that time, parents often have to return to work, or tend to other children.

At Sacred Heart Hospital, there is a special team ready to step in and lend a lap while mom and dad are away.

Nurse Rose Cunningham retired this past April. That same month, she became an official cuddler.

She shared, "I come every Monday for four hours. I worked in Labor and Delivery for 25 years and I just couldn't say goodbye."

There are twelve cuddlers at Sacred Heart Hospital. All are volunteers with extra NICU training.

Kaly Fox and Pat Kaiser are among them. Kaiser, like Cunningham, is a retired nurse who couldn't stay away.

"The babies. The way they smell, just everything about babies!", she grinned.

Fox isn't a nurse, but she does have a busy job. She plans and puts on special events every weekend.

By Monday morning, she's more than ready to cuddle.

She smiled, "It just takes like down a notch and makes me refocus."

The team helps fragile babies whose parents have had to go back to work. Research shows that when infants get extra attention and snuggle time between parent visits and medical rounds they gain weight more quickly, develop stronger cognitive skills and reach milestones at faster rates.

"Oh man, the families have been phenomenal and so appreciative," Fox said.

Jean McClellan is baby Pierce's grandmother, or his "GiGi."

"He truly is a miracle. He's had many prayers said for him because we weren't expecting to take a baby home at all," McClellan said tearfully.

Pierce's mother was told when she was at 20 weeks gestation that her baby would not survive birth. Her womb did not have enough amniotic fluid to support his growth and development.

However, as her pregnancy progressed, her fluid level began to increase. Pierce was born in June, eight weeks early.

Pierce's mother has left his side only a few times since he was born. On the day of our shoot, she and her husband had to take care of some family business, and GiGi was on duty.

"I cry every time I leave him, you know, cause I still do have to leave for work," said McClellan.

She said knowing there are cuddlers on hand, ready to rock and pray over her grandson in her place, makes leaving him almost bearable.

"This is his going home outfit and we hope that he can wear this sooner than later," she said happily.

Until then, which could be another six to eight weeks, Rose Cunningham is on standby. She said she leaves her cuddler shift just as soothed as her tiny charges.

She whispered, "I feel very good. I can't wait to come back".

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