At Magee Women’s Hospital, Touch Eases Babies Going Through Withdrawal

Nov 16, 2016

Beverly Thornton feeds a baby at Magee Women's Hospital. Thornton is a volunteer for the baby cuddler program.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Beverly Thornton cuddles babies on Wednesdays.

When she walks into the neonatal intensive care unit at Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, she said she can often already hear a baby crying.

“I know somebody is going to need my attention right away,” she said.

She swaddles, feeds, rocks and soothes babies going through withdrawal. The babies have neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, meaning they were exposed to opioids such as heroin or oxycodone in utero.

NAS babies struggle to digest formula or breast milk, which leads to loose stools, extreme irritability, restlessness and sometimes tremors.  

Magee’s Vice President of Patient Care Maribeth McLaughlin said the infants need more attention than non-NAS babies. It’s a lot of work and recovering mothers need help. Because of that, in 2005 UMPC Magee Women's Hospital started the “cuddler” program. It has since expanded to UPMC Altoona.   

A schedule for the cuddlers of Magee Women's Hospital is displayed outside of the nursery.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Volunteers follow the lead of a nurse and sit with the babies while the parents rest. Magee is also a referral center for the region, meaning parents sometimes live several hours away.

Between 2000 and 2015, the rate of neonatal hospital stays in Pennsylvania related to substance abuse increased 250 percent, according to the state agency Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council. The rate of NAS in the state has increased 870 percent in the same time period.

At Magee, about 600 of the 10,000 babies born there every year have the syndrome. 

Sometimes the babies need medication to help taper them off the drugs in their systems. But with human contact, the hospital has been able to use less medication while keeping the babies comfortable.

Thornton likes to sing to the babies and tell them it’s going to be OK. She held one baby boy, wrapped tightly in a blanket and told him he’d go home soon.

All the while, she kept careful tabs on the baby’s heart rate monitor.

“No matter how much the baby seems to be struggling or what a tough time they're having, I can always look at the monitor and see that I've had an impact,” she said. “If you're holding the baby and you find just the right position … you can see the monitor go down and their heart rate kind of slows down.”

Thornton is retired and volunteers for several organizations in Pittsburgh. But she said she feels most present in her life when she’s rocking a baby at the hospital.

“While their monitors are going down, probably if I had a monitor on, mine would be going down as well because you're relaxed, but you're focused on them,” she said.

Beverly Thornton cradles a baby at Magee Women's Hospital.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Though McLaughlin said she recognizes the stigma associated with mothers of babies with NAS, she said addiction is a disease and the mothers need as much help as the babies.

“Patients need help with managing those diseases and dealing with their social situations that perhaps led them down that path,” she said. “But they are some of the most motivated people I’ve seen, because they really want to get better. This is a great time in their lives to really capitalize on that fact and help them to change their life, to turn things around because they have a reason and it’s that baby.”

Parents are given the same training the “cuddler” volunteers are given. They’re taught how to recognize when the baby is irritated and just needs to be held.

The waitlist to become a volunteer cuddler is currently capped at 200 and the hospital is not taking any applications.

A version of this story also aired on The Pulse.