Volunteers, mostly grandmas, step in to comfort babies when parents can't be there.

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Brought into the world 10 weeks early, Erik James Murphy emerged from his mother weighing just 2 pounds, 6 ounces.

He was smaller than small. But little Erik was strong, too, breathing on his own from the outset, and as he started recovering and gaining weight in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Golisano Children's Hospital, he had the love and support of a grandmother.

Well, actually, lots of grandmothers.

For nearly a decade, the children's hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center has enlisted the help of a team of volunteers who comfort infants when family members can't be there.

The "cuddlers," as they're called in the NICU, are mostly older women, and they aren't nurses or medical professionals. But when faced with a crying infant, many have a lifetime of experience to call upon.

"I enjoy taking a baby that's upset and crying, and to just hold him or sing to him or read to him, and then they kind of snuggle in and go to sleep," said Wilma Wood, 69, one of the volunteer cuddlers.

For parents, the cuddler program is a wonderful comfort. When life calls them away, they know that their babies are being cared for, not just by the doctors and nurses who monitor their vital signs, but also by the volunteers who can rock them to sleep.

For the babies, the cuddlers provide a meaningful and measurable health benefit.

"The researchers are proving that early meaningful interactions really do help promote the wellness of babies," said Chris Tryon, a child life specialist at Golisano Children's Hospital. "The touch, the communication helps to promote better growth physically, mentally, and socially."

'It's just life'

The hospital usually has about 40 volunteer cuddlers on its roster. For a volunteer gig, the position is relatively demanding, as cuddlers must commit for at least a year, and must work regular shifts on a weekly or biweekly basis.

But for many, the position carries tremendous appeal.

"When I was still working, I heard a mother talking to a nurse, and she was very upset 'cause she lived out of town and couldn't come in all the time," said Wood. "And the nurse said to her 'We have a lot of wonderful grandmas ... that come and hold your baby.' And I thought that when I retire, that's what I want to do."

So despite the scheduling requirements, there's always a waiting list to become a cuddler. Some volunteers have to wait for a year or more before a position opens up.

About 10 years ago, when the hospital enlisted its first cuddlers, parents had to sign consent forms to be part of the program. But the hospital soon did away with that requirement.

"That went away after the first year. We were just like 'We've got to provide this for everybody. This is going to be our standard of care,'" said Tryon. "And we've been that way ever since."

Not all of the babies in the NICU can be safely held. Those that are too small or too sick are kept in isolated chambers. But for the ones who are getting closer to leaving the hospital, the cuddlers can provide a partial substitute for life at home, where the babies would be getting picked up and put down constantly.

"They'd be held, they'd be moving from room to room. You almost don't quantify it, it's just life," said Tryon. "But here, we need to be intentional about striving to provide these normal experiences."

Even the simplest of interactions, such as being carried around a room, have health benefits for infants. Most recently, a study from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Saitama, Japan, showed that an infant's heart rate slows when being carried.

For Erik Murphy's mother Margaret, the notion that many different people have held her baby is a positive.

"Just being outside, being in the civilian world, I feel like he'll adapt better if he has lots of personalities with him," she said.

A world away

Margaret Murphy's surprising head start on motherhood began about 11 weeks before her scheduled due date, when she arrived at Strong Memorial Hospital with pains in her stomach.

After a week in the hospital, doctors noticed that the blood flow through her umbilical cord was being rejected. An emergency cesarean followed, and Erik was born. At first, Margaret Murphy could only hold her son for about half an hour per day. The rest of the time, Erik had to stay in his own isolette — and incubator of sorts — which ensured his warmth and protected him from illness.

"Everything felt so unnatural and I felt so distanced from this little isolette thing," said Margaret Murphy, 37, of Bloomfield. "It felt like he was a world away."

Erik needed a small tube inserted in his nose to help with oxygen flow, but his lungs were working well, and he never needed a ventilator to help him breathe. As he gained strength, half an hour outside the isolette turned into an hour, and then longer.

The days after Erik's birth were a completely "surreal" experience, she said. But soon, Margaret Murphy started to feel like a normal mother.

Normalcy also meant a return to work and life. Eventually, Margaret Murphy had to go back to her farm, where she teaches horseback riding. When she couldn't be there, the cuddlers stepped in.

"On the days I have to work, I'll be gone four or five hours, and if my parents can't come, it's such a peace of mind to know that someone is holding him and talking to him," said Margaret Murphy.

By the time Erik's original due date came around, he weighed nearly 7 pounds. Last week, he left the hospital and went home with his mom.

"I was so amazed at how well taken care of I was," said Margaret Murphy. "Even though it's devastating, it's scary, it's been a really good experience."

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