The Drug-Affected Newborns Being Healed Through Touch

By Azriel ReShel on Saturday May 6th, 2017

Image: Kelly Sikkema

The Power of Loving Touch and Affection

There’s nothing like the smell, grace and promise of a beautiful new baby. It’s like they symbolise a fresh hope for the world. Connecting with, and cuddling, a newborn is a sweet and magical experience, but for thousands of babies around the world, it’s something that is vital to their wellbeing.

Increasing numbers of babies are being born into a fight for their lives, as their bodies desperately try to rid themselves of the drugs their mothers took during pregnancy. With varying degrees of painkillers or heroin in their little bodies, their first days of life are a traumatic and painful experience.

Opioid addiction has reached crisis levels in America, with the number of drug addicted babies born in the US having quadrupled in the last decade. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one baby every 25 minutes is born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which requires the babies to go through a withdrawal program where they are given decreasing doses of morphine. The situation is getting so serious now that some hospitals are introducing programs to help drug-addicted mothers and their babies.

These tiny babies experience intense withdrawal symptoms of diarrhoea, shaking, vomiting, crying and intense pain. If you imagine what a drug-addicted adult experiences when they go cold turkey – that’s what these vulnerable babies go through as well.

Increasing numbers of drug-affected babiesThe number of drug-affected babies born in the US has quadrupled in the last decade. Image: Christian Bowen.

Nurses report that drug affected babies shake, sweat, cry, get severe acidic diarrhoea that burns their skin, as well as suffer the pain of being overstimulated by lights and sound. But, there is hope; the same nurses note that when held and cuddled for long periods, these babies are comforted and can cope with their ordeal much better.

It is vital to their recovery that they get tender, loving care so they can survive this painful experience so early on. One nurse has started a program calling for volunteers to cuddle these babies.

The Birth of The Program

Jane Cavanaugh, a nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, is encouraging volunteers to hold, cuddle and soothe the babies suffering through withdrawal. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News:

These babies going through withdrawal and need to be held for extended periods … They need human touch. They need soothing. They need talking.

Often they spend months alone in hospitals as they are weaned off the heroin or painkillers that filled their bodies during their time in the womb. Sometimes the infants have been removed from their parents, or their drug addicted mothers are attending drug rehabilitation programs, so there is no one there to comfort and soothe them, except the already overworked nurses and hospital staff.

Loving touch and soothing is a lifeline to these babiesLoving touch and soothing is a lifeline to these babies. Image: Aditya Romansa.

Doctors have also reported that volunteers cuddling the babies reduces both the amount of medication they need, as well as the length of their stay in the hospital.

Cabell Huntington Hospital, in West Virginia, was one of the first hospitals to recognise a need for specialised care for these chemically dependent newborns, with the opening of a second neonatal unit specifically for withdrawal babies. It also has an off-site rehabilitation centre, Lily’s Place, where babies are given dedicated treatment.

Lily’s Place opened its doors in October 2014 as the first Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) Centre in the United States, with specialised care and a volunteer program, housing newborns away from fluorescent light and noise of the busy hospital.

Cuddle care programs are popping up all over the US in response to the soaring rates of drug-affected babies being born. Most hospitals have seen huge success with having cuddlers come in to soothe premature babies, and now hospitals can use the same loving care for these vulnerable babies battling to heal their drugged systems.

The Importance of Secure Attachement and Bonding

Along with simply surviving the difficult process of being weaned off the drugs in their system, these babies need to experience secure attachment and bonding. All babies need to experience secure attachment to their mothers or caregivers early on, and this is vital in developing basic qualities like trust in life, trust in others, a trust that your needs will be met, as well as developing the ability to connect and be intimate later in life.

Psychologists define attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’, and babies have a universal need to seek close proximity with their caregiver when under stress or when they feel threatened. The need for secure attachment and love is even greater in these babies suffering through the first months of their lives, and loving touch, care and support is a tremendous lifeline to them. Adults with healthy relationships experienced an abundance of physical touch and love as babies.

The need for secure attachment and love is even greater for these babiesThe need for secure attachment and love is even greater for these babies. Image: Gustavo Cultic.

Though the thought of these precious babies crying as they endure the pain of coming off the drugs in their system is not pleasant, there is hope. In a forum for parents who have adopted drug-affected babies, each parent shared that the screaming and incessant crying of these vulnerable babies was dramatically improved through wearing the baby in a sling or cuddling them. And every parent reported an amazing transformation in the baby after they had been successfully weaned off the drugs.

These beautiful parents adopted babies born with chemical dependencies and through their loving care, are supporting these children to live the most normal life possible, despite a terribly rocky start. Here is a comment from one parent:

We have one child born addicted to drugs and he is now six. As a baby, he had difficulties, he was more needy and less screamy…as long as you had him in your arms, he was content. We never put him down for long. He slept with me on the couch, we laid him on our legs to change him. He wanted to touch us all the time, so we let him. He was sickly, with feeding issues, and breathing issues, had multiple surgeries and procedures, was on meds daily for over four years for different issues and was diagnosed with ADHD at age one by his neurologist. He is very active. He has trouble paying attention. But do you know what? He is the light of my life, quite possibly the sweetest child I have ever met. Caring and loving and thoughtful. No, he can’t pay attention in a regular school setting, and yes, during homeschool he does read while hanging upside down off the back of the couch, but he can read. And he is so smart! He loves life and loves people, is helpful, likes to bake cookies and do chores!

While it’s easy to vilify the mothers of these precious infants suffering so much; so early on, it’s also important to remember that drug addiction is an illness. Hopefully, these support and cuddle programs can support babies and their mothers to heal the trauma that caused the problems they were trying to fix with drugs. Fortunately, we have the ability to help, as the antidote is the simplest thing possible – love – the one thing we all know how to give. Even if it may be a little flawed or imperfect, we can all share love and cuddles.

If you feel moved to help you could contact your own local hospital and offer your services. You could also check with women and children’s shelters in your communities to see if they need support with families of moms battling addiction.

Some examples of places that take volunteers are below.

Volunteer Opportunities

Here is a list of participating hospitals in the US:

The Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia, has a four-hour training course for cuddler volunteers.

The Boston Medical Center has a program called CALM – Cuddling Assists in Lowering Maternal and Infant Stress.

Lily’s Place

Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC in Pittsburgh

The Woman’s Hospital of Texas

The Children’s Home of Pittsburgh & Lemieux Family Centre

Miller Children’s Hospital

University of Chicago Medicine

Australian participating hospitals:

Sunshine Hospital, Victoria

Royal Women’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

These lists are compiled as a guide only and may not be up to date or completely accurate. Please check with your local hospital or women’s outreach for programs near you.

Azriel ReShel

Writer, Editor, Yoga Teacher & Healing Facilitator




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102 Responses to The Drug-Affected Newborns Being Healed Through Touch

    • It’s wonderful to hear you would like to get involved Salpi. I suggest calling your local hospitals to find out if they offer a program like this.

      Best of luck and thanks for reading 🙂
      Team UPLIFT

  1. Hi, My name is LInda Marsden. I am from the Raleigh, NC area. I am interested in finding out if this program is in my area. I am 58 years old, and would love to be a part of this.

  2. I’m Anetha Whitney, 48 year old mother of six. Grandmother of eight,
    I have a full time job but is looking to cuddle Gods little Angels.

  3. Erickson has spent 26 years as a hospital volunteer, with 24 years in the NICU. His cuddling game is strong; he estimates he’s cuddled about 1,500 babies. He almost talked himself out of that first cuddling orientation, as he’d never held a baby less than 6 months old.

  4. I am very interested in cuddling babies that have a need. After my “corporate” life, I achieved a degree in Early Childhood Development and was a private nanny from 2005 to 2018.I cared for children as newborns to school age. I want to volunteer part time, if possible; 2-3 days per week, 2-6 hours per day. I reside in St. Louis, the Des Peres area. Thank you!

    Bev Carter

    • Hi Bev,

      So happy to hear you would like to get involved. As this is not an initiative of ours as such it would be best if you get in contact with your local hospital to see if they have a program like this running.

      Good luck!
      Team UPLIFT

  5. I am in the downriver area in Michigan. I’m a senior and my husband passed Christmas Day 2018. I would love to get involved with these precious babies. It would be a blessing to me as well as them. In my early 20’s I volunteered at Children’s Hospital one summer and it was the greatest!! But now I live a little too far away. There are 2 hospitals nearby but neither one has this program. I wish I knew what to do to help get it started. I will look for other volunteer opportunities until I can find this program near me.

  6. Hi… I do so want to cuddle drug-affected newborns. I live in Monmouth County, New Jersey. I’ve made some attempts in finding a facility that has program, but to no avail. I would appreciate any assistance you can offer.
    Thank you

    • Hey Donna,

      The facilities that we are aware of that offer this program are listed in the article, it may be that it is not yet set-up in your area.


  7. If anything, in the BUFFALO, NY area opens up, I would be available and very responsible to do this for these little angels! I have several grandchildren and find them all to be blessings from God, even with all their differences!

  8. I am trying to find a contact for this in Tampa Fla. I want to nominate this charity or volunteer opportunity to my employer. please respond

  9. i see through this chat room that many of us throughout the united states are having the same problem…where to find a place in out area, how to apply and what is needed. I just happened to fall across this sight after about 10 hours of non-continuous looking. I am in Van Nuys =, California…Help me help the future children…we both need it! Thank you.

  10. Is there any hospitals in the Vancouver washington area. I would love to help.please advise . My name is Charlotte.

  11. looking to volunteer in the Henderson,Las Vegas area.
    I could not locate any programs.
    do you know if they offer program in NV?

  12. I am VERY INSTERESTED in helping out as a cuddler….have some training and am available immediately

  13. I would love to be a part of this in my community, are there locations that support this in Murfreesboro, Smyrna, or Lavergne Tennessee?

  14. Is there a way to get updates on new hospitals that will do this? Is there anything I can do to help my local hospital get involved?

  15. This is a program that I am really interested in because these poor children have no choice in the matter they are helpless and the fact that there is an opportunity for caring people to step in and do what we can is great so please let me know if there is anywhere near North Carolina 27262 and I’m willing to travel that I can step in.

  16. I’m very interested in doing this! These babies need special care & love & hugs & it would be of such wonderful help to them

    I live in the county of New London,Ct

  17. I live in Buffalo NY… I would love to get this program started here. Is that even possible and if so how do I get it started? This is such a great idea!

  18. It’s a great idea and I would love to volunteer. The reality is that the program isn’t well established everywhere. And no how to or diy information to get one started. You don’t just walk into your local hospitals and say I want to volunteer to cuddle addicted babies.
    I’m sure there is protocol.

  19. I would really love to volunteer in this program during my semester break. However, there isn’t a link to find out if local hospitals in Malaysia participitate in this program or take volunteers.

  20. We need to make people and hospitals aware that they people should not be able to leave the hospital with out them contacting DSS OR DHS!! And have monitoring on their parenting abilities! This is a serious crises and baby’s are dying after leaving the hospital but unfit parents on drugs… one mother put her baby in the washing machine with a load of laundry and passed out found the baby later that day! This needs attention!!

    • What!! how horrible!! did you ever find out if the baby was alive!!!
      and wasn’t the baby injured as the washing machine went into all the cycles??????? yes, this needs attention!!!!! I agree that these people shouldn’t leave the hospital even after the child has been weaned off the opiodes or etc. until they contact DSS Or DHS as “”required” by the social services department in these hospitals. Unfit parents are released to take the baby home despite everything that has happened to th baby & parents think they are well enough after rehabilitation but in actuality are unfit parents going home to take care of the baby.

      What happens as in the above reply, the unfit parent as stated above
      breaks with their rehabilitation pattern and then the baby “SUFFERS AGAIN”!!!

      That’s why DSS or DHS needs to be involved when these fragile little lives are just infants. Grown people SHOULD know better !!!!!

      thank you for your comment.

  21. I would love to do this… I live in Jakarta, Indonesia. If there’s more info about it I would love to… iam a mother of three , so it’s hear breaking to see these babies just needs cuddles… I Wish I can help

  22. Im now concerned …. what kind of people do they have because this scares me as people that have been arrested and charged with sexual abuse dont techically have a criminal conviction yes uts pick up if they were wanting to be a working in police etc. but not for a general workimg with childens check… this breaks my heart that someone high up cant be paid to do this job to be there thats had full test on everything….
    I have so many trust issues when it comes to certain adults around children.

    • I thought the same thing. But if you look at the application for some of the hospital application requirements. They do a background check on you and test you for TB. They should also make sure they do not put their lips on the babies. But I would love toe do this myself also.

      • glad that you looked into the hospital application requirements…..I also found the requirements needed to be a volunteer cuddler. And wasn’t aware that the volunteer cuddler DON’T put their lips on the babies.

        These babies need the POWER OF TOUCH !! Touching is part of the human bonding experience, and will help the baby develop the brain also.
        In ways that the baby can learn to trust, especially in the first months of life. Also as they develop through life with all these & other helps they will be able to express intimacy with others.

        These “special babies” need alot of cuddling and extra attention as their mothers or families are absent in their lives while they are hospitalized weaning off the opiodes that the mother took. The mothers are going through rehabilitation while these “special babies” suffer the effects of withdrawal symptoms—–the crying, screaming, diarrhea, high fevers, until these “special babies” are well to go home or placed in a good home environment. Most times hospitals are understaffed and overworked and these “special babies” have mp pme!!! as they are in pain and suffering for what the mother took into their system and passed onto their baby without the mother even realizing it. Only thinking of their instant gratification.

        thank you for expressing your research ……….I hope we both find a hospital where we can be volunteer cuddlers………..if not I’ll be waiting as I volunteer elsewhere for now.

        Where did you say you filled out an application or did you?
        I didn’t as yet after I inquired about whether my local hospital
        (St. Mary’s (St. Joseph Health System) Hospital her in the High Desert in Southern Ca. specifically Apple Valley, Ca. —– and was given the answer that St. Mary’s Hospital in Apple Valley, Ca. doesn’t volunteer in that program for the protection of these infants.

  23. I’m a mother of 3 and grandmother of 4. Would love to do this. I live in Canada on Vancouver Island in a small community where drugs are rampant. I’m retired and have had a criminal record check so I could take on foreign students. Looking for something to do that’s more meaningful.

  24. Having trouble finding out how to volunteer in the Pasadena/Los Angeles area. Children’s Hospital is no longer accepting applications.

  25. Are there any participating hospitals in Columbus Oh ? I currently have a therapy dog and visit hospitals but would love to do this as well

      • Debra,
        I live in Palm Bay. I looked into this last year and was told that our local hospitals don’t utilize outside cuddlers because they are small hospitals. I was advised to look into the bigger areas like Miami and possibly Orlando.

      • Debra,
        I live in Palm Bay. I looked into this last year and was told that our local hospitals don’t utilize outside cuddlers because they are small hospitals. I was advised to look into the bigger areas like Miami and possibly Orlando.

      • The middle of June:I will staying in Vier, Fl for 9 months – I would love to give my love and attention to these precious babies.

        • I would like to sign up for it.. they r alot of babies here in Murphy nc as well and would like to start it here and I am willing to do it… Hi I am I’m 30 years old and have 3kids..

  26. Great Idea but doesn’t help if there isn’t a link to a way to find out if local hospitals in my area take volunteers. A few years ago when I asked at a hospital I was told they no longer had “cuddlers” due to liability issues.

    • Participating hospitals were listed in the article. Use your phone and Google to find out for your area. Easy.

    • Hi Judith and others in FL. I found an application process for the Florida Children’s Hospital in Orlando, did anyone try that. It requires certain documents and a criminal search as well as a commitment to 100 hours a year.
      I’m in the process of application now,

      • Well darn I posted before I saw this. Do they have anything or are working on anything in the Tampa area?

      • Hi, There is also a hospital in the panhandle called Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center in Panama City! They have a huge drug problem and this program.

    • yes and I experienced the same at my local hospital. so where can I find a program for adults who really want to become a volunteer cuddler?

    • I couldn’t agree more. I would love to be a participant in such a program. Just googled and contacted several hospitals via their websites. No such program available. Someone with the proper ” Know-how” should put together a website or some such for hospitals to register.

    • I would love to volunteer my time as a Cuddler. I live in Wilson, NC. 27893. I’m a Mother of Five, I’ve also raised two Grandchildren from birth ages 21 and 22. Active in my church home and babies are my passion. If you have a link for Wilson,County please email me.

      • Hi Loretta,

        That’s great that you’d like to volunteer. This is not run by us so the best thing to do would be to contact your local hospital to see if they take volunteers.

        Good luck and cuddles to you!
        Team UPLIFT

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