In a study released this August by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prevalence of opiod use disorder among women delivering babies more than quadrupled from 1999-2014 and Kentucky has one of the highest rates in the nation.
Volunteers at Women's Hospital Saint Joseph East in Lexington known as cuddlers, help comfort the babies who were exposed to opiods in utero.
Wearing a blue smock and blue gloves Emily Putman cradles baby Maverick ,holding him close , rocking back and forth. The volunteer cuddler softly strokes the infant’s forehead between his eyebrows with her thumb.
“Rubbing their head makes them feel really nice and secure. Having them tight and up close makes them feel secure enough to be able to fall asleep.”
Baby Maverick is in the neonatal intensive care unit or NICU at St Joe’s because he was born prematurely. But Emily is usually soothing and cuddling babies who have Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS.
It’s a drug withdrawal syndrome experienced shortly after birth by infants who were exposed to opiods in utero. Putman says when she was trained how to comfort a baby in the NICU she was also warned these newborns are irritable and easily upset.
“ When they get taken out of a blanket where most babies would cry for a little bit, they’ll scream, they’ll get very angry and it takes them a long time to calm down even after they’re wrapped back up. And it can be really heart breaking to hold a baby that you know has just been subjected to things you know they didn’t agree for. To have this innocence going through withdraw. It’s a very painful thing to watch."
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse , the incidence of NAS in Kentucky increased from 0.4 cases per 1000 births in 2000 to 15.0 cases per 1,000 births in 2013—a more than thirty-sevenfold increase.
The average stay of babies going through withdrawal at St Joe’s is 15 days according to Dr Khaldon Jundi, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit .
He says their nervous systems are not well organized and they’re not able to eat.
"Babies who have withdrawal ,one of the big problems we face with them is that they don’t gain weight because they’re fidgety all the time. And when you fidget you burn a lot of calories. So when you are held, it is actually part of the treatment, that is known,that is a fact, it helps them ease the withdrawal and avoid pharmacological treatment."
Jundi says even when babies need to be treated with medication due to withdrawal they still benefit from and need the cuddler program.
" The Cuddler Program is an essential part of any Neonatal Intensive Care unit especially in this day and age with NAS because unfortunately the medical team doesn’t have always all the time to sit and rock a baby for an hour. So the cuddlers provide that when the mom is not here."
Dr. Jundi says statewide, hospitals have a protocol to get babies home as soon as possible. He adds the protocol for NAS babies includes the cuddler program which he says helps reduce hospital stays significantly.
Cuddlers like Emily Putman spend several hours a week at the hospital comforting the newborn babies. The 18 –year- old is taking to steps to be a NICU nurse.
Her volunteer opportunity is personal since her little sister,who the family adopted, was an NAS baby. The Putman’s got Sarah when she was two years old. Now she’s six and Emily says doing very well.
Emily says she could not have prepared for what she gets from the cuddling experience.” That feeling of ongoing compassion for someone.It’s always something that’s so rewarding more than anything else. Just being able to give your time and love these little babies that don’t always have parents to come and give them the love that they deserve.”
There are twenty six active cuddlers at St. Joe’s neonatal intensive care unit making a difference.