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Cuddlers changing lives in the NICU at St. Louis Children's Hospital

The program gives babies a loving set of arms when mom and dad are away.

St. Louis, MO — Nancy Johnson is the quintessential doting grandmother

But the baby she's holding -- Sabastian -- isn't her grandson.

A few months ago, the baby boy, his mom and grandma were strangers to her.

But now, they're like family.

"We love Nancy. She's one of our favorites," says Sabastian's mom, Kelsey Chase

Nancy volunteers as a Cuddler in the St. Louis Children's Hospital Newborn ICU.

The goal? To give babies whose moms and dads can't be at the bedside 24/7 the next best thing: a loving set of arms to hold down the fort.

"After 27 years of raising children, I felt like I had a certain level of expertise in that," Nancy says.

When she started, Nancy was one of only a few Cuddlers. But recognizing the importance of a little

"That interaction is every bit as important as the other things that we do," she says. "Like starting IVs and putting them on a ventilator."

Studies have linked that extra interaction to decreased lengths of hospital stays and improved social interaction as babies grow.

The evidence proved strong enough for Children's to grow the program into a full time volunteer structure,

"There are usually two Cuddlers on any given shift," Nancy explains. "We'll get a call from a nurse -- someone could use a little extra love right now."

Love volunteers like Nancy give in spades.

As for Sebastian -- her time with him is winding down as his mom prepares to take him home.

"We're always happy when they're able to go home, but it's an unanswered question as to what happens to them after they leave. You always wonder," Nancy admits

But she won't ever have to wonder if her hours spent rocking him mattered. She knows she's done her job.

"A nurse and a doctor came in the other day," Kelsey says. "And they say they see him dong big things."

The Cuddler program is very popular among volunteers, but caring for such special babies requires specialized training. Cuddlers spend time in other areas of the hospital and go through a training course before they start snuggling. For more information on the process – and other ways to volunteer – visit stlouischildrens.org/volunteer.

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