Volunteers in Chester County, PA help NICU and Pediatrics babies.

Chester County Hospital's Volunteer Cuddlers
Top row L-R: Sherry Allen, Diana Palermo, Kathy Moran, Lisa Cocco, Jeanne Hutton, Stephanie Sutton, Bea Battista, Pat Bove
Bottom row L-R: Melissa Slifer, Kathy Mull, Barbara Fell, Diane Schertzer

For the more than 500,000 premature babies born in the U.S. each year, human touch can have a powerful impact on healthy growth and development. To ensure that all babies, including those who are the most vulnerable, get the hugs they need to thrive, the Huggies’ No Baby Unhugged grant has awarded Chester County Hospital $10,000 to help establish a volunteer newborn-hugging program. This initiative will provide much-needed physical interaction for newborns that can help make their transition from the hospital to the home quicker.

Chester County Hospitals ensures infants get the support they need for optimal development. "The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Pediatric staffs at Chester County Hospital are honored to be chosen for Huggies’ No Baby Unhugged grant. It will be used to start a cuddling program in our hospital to benefit premature babies and infants withdrawing from maternal drug use,” says Stefanie Steinberger, DPT, Lead Physical Therapist for the NICU. 

Susan Cacciavillano, BSN, RN, Clinical Manager of the NICU, adds, “We serve some low socioeconomic populations who may not have reliable transportation to and from the hospital to see their babies. Between these families and the number of babies admitted with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), we believe that a Cuddler program will benefit our most vulnerable patients.” 

Research shows that ample human contact aids babies in their development of good clinical outcomes. Interventions, such as holding, rocking and soothing babies, as well as singing and talking to babies support weight gain, reduce length of hospital stays, improve brain development, and in the long term, enhance the development of trusting relationships. 

The plan to implement a Cuddler program has been in the works for some time. In September 2016, Cacciavillano and Steinberger met with Penn colleagues from Lancaster General Health (LGH) to talk about their Cuddler program and how to bring it to Chester County. “All of our training practices, guidelines and implementation plans stemmed from LGH. Their team was instrumental in getting our program off the ground,” explained Cacciavillano. The shared information and implementation did need some amending, as Chester County Hospital planned to introduce the program not just in its NICU, but also in its Pediatric unit. The program launched in November 2017.

“Our Pediatrics team helps a lot of babies with NAS, too. These babies are unable to self-soothe due to the painful effects of drug withdrawal. Cuddlers will be invaluable for keeping these babies calm and content while they are going through something so difficult,” Steinberger explains.  “In addition, we now know that exposure to stressful or painful situations adversely impacts the development of the premature brain. Our Cuddlers will provide a calming technique called containment to help these premature babies tolerate difficult procedures, which will improve their development in the future.”

After hearing about the Huggies’ No Baby Unhugged program, Cacciavillano and Steinberger applied and heard back roughly one month later that the hospital had been chosen as one of just seven recipients nationwide. 

Chester County's only level III NICU adds valuable service for infant development.The hospital used the grant to put its program in place and to train volunteers. The volunteers were required to go through an interview process and attend the hospital’s orientation, volunteer orientation and an eight-hour training program taught by NICU and Pediatrics staff. They must also pass a background check and health screenings, have child abuse clearances, and be 21 years or older with previous baby handling experience. Cuddlers will receive updated training as needed and must pass annual competency tests. 

The Cuddlers played a large role in the hospital’s current NICU expansion, which began in December 2017. The unit will double in size and feature private and shared rooms as well as hybrid model rooms that allow space for parents to stay overnight with their infants. In preparation for the renovation, the NICU was moved to a temporary unit on the opposite side of the hospital to protect the infants from the noise and vibration of construction.

“Having Cuddlers in place before the transition to the temporary NICU was important. They were instrumental in creating smooth transitions for the babies,” said Cacciavillano. 

The Cuddlers will be equally as valuable when the renovation is complete later this year and it is time to transfer the babies to the new, expanded space.

Cuddling occurs when parents or family members are not present to hold or calm infants. The volunteers work with bedside nurses to provide the appropriate comfort measures. Parents are taught the benefits of the program and why it is the standard of practice in the NICU and Pediatrics units to ensure that these vulnerable babies will have the benefit of human contact daily.

At this time, Chester County Hospital is fortunate to have a full volunteer staff for the Cuddler program. However, we do have other volunteer opportunities with different departments in the hospital.To see the full list of volunteer openings, click here.

About Chester County Hospital

Chester County Hospital was founded in 1892 as the Chester County’s first hospital. Since then, the non-profit has grown into a 248-bed acute-care inpatient facility in West Chester, PA. The hospital also has outpatient services in Exton, West Goshen, West Grove, Kennett Square and New Garden. In 2013, Chester County Hospital became part of Penn Medicine, which is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to medical education, biomedical research, and excellent patient care. In addition to quality-driven medical and surgical services, Chester County Hospital also offers home health, inpatient hospice and skilled nursing care; occupational medicine; outpatient laboratory, radiology and physical therapy services; wound care; cardiopulmonary rehab; and a prenatal clinic for the underserved.

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