On Tuesday mornings, Joan travels an hour and a half on the subway from Queens, New York, to the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, where she spends hours walking the halls of Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital’s NICU, soothing and comforting the smallest of patients.
Wearing her hospital volunteer ID and a teal-colored jacket with “Cuddler” printed on the lapel, Joan checks in with the charge nurse to learn which babies need extra attention that day. She then makes her way to the NICU, washing her hands thoroughly before entering, and does what she calls “her rounds.” Meaning, she quietly stands at the entrance of the NICU and listens for a baby’s cry. “My ears are tuned in when I walk in that door,” says Joan. “I look around and say, ‘What’s the cause of the crying?’ Sometimes it’s mom changing a diaper or nurses or doctors fussing with them, but if no one’s there and they’re fussing, that’s when it’s cuddler to the rescue!”
She first checks with a nurse to make sure the baby can be cuddled, which can be “a gentle pat-pat-pat on the back or holding their hand,” she says. A pacifier is one way Joan helps to soothe the babies, which also encourages them to learn how to suck. Another way is swaddling, which helps them feel contained and secure. Other times, Joan holds a baby while she’s sitting down, with the approval and help of a nurse.
Joan’s techniques are part instincts and part cuddle training, which involves seven hours of orientation with a nurse and four hours shadowing a child life specialist. The training shows cuddlers how the nurses interact and handle the babies and how the Child Life team helps with infant development.
“When I hold them, sometimes I hum or sing — tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” or Frank Sinatra’s love songs — or I talk to them. I tell them, ‘You have to eat and sleep so you can get big and strong.’ I talk to them about their future. I say, ‘You think a pacifier’s good? Wait till you see ice cream or lollipops or pancakes.’”
According to Joan, “holding them with love and taking the babies’ cues” are what guide her.