Helping newborns exposed to opioids, one hug at a time

BOSTON — Boston Medical Center is using the power of touch to make groundbreaking progress, helping newborn babies exposed to drugs in the womb, who often suffer from withdrawal in their first days of life.  Volunteer “cuddlers” are giving the babies a stronger start in life, getting them home from the hospital sooner, and with less medication.

Volunteer Pamela Turcotte said her hour volunteering at B.M.C’s “CALM” Program each with week with infants with prenatal opiate exposure is “wonderful”.

“They just bring you this tiny little bundle and you're just holding it and looking at it and saying: You're gonna be okay,” said Turcotte.

Babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome can suffer from symptoms of withdrawal like tremors, trouble eating, sleeping, and simply getting comfortable.

Dr. Elisha Wachman is the head of B.M.C.’s CALM Program. She says human touch can have a tremendous impact and provide enough comfort to get the babies through those first difficult days.

“By just snuggling a baby, it can be a difference between a baby getting medication versus not,” said Dr. Wachman.

Helping infants and saving money in the process

It's especially key when the parents maybe away from the infants bedside or going through treatment, and cannot be here to provide that “one on one” time.

“We have a cuddler step in and really comfort the infant, to the point where, most of the time, I walk in and the infant fast asleep on the cuddler, looking very comfortable and not showing any signs of withdrawal at all,” said Dr. Wachman.

The benefits are not limited to the sweet sighs of a sleeping baby. Since the program started in December, B.M.C. has been able to cut the length of the infants' hospital stays nearly in half.  In addition, 50 percent of the children in the program no longer need medication.  The program stands to save the hospital nearly $2 million dollars over the course of the year. And it hasn't cost them a penny.

A personal reason to volunteer

Volunteer Pamela Turcotte knows first-hand what these babies need. She has grandchildren who were born with opioids in their system.

“I knew after watching them grow and seeing what everybody went through that I needed to help others,” Turcotte said.  She wants mothers who are struggling to know there are people there to help, and they won’t be judged.

Her only regret now, is when her hour is up and she has to leave!

“It just fills you with so much purpose,” Turcotte said. “It's amazing what one simple thing can do to change the outcome.”

There are 100 people in the volunteer cuddler program and 150 more on the waiting list. All volunteers have to undergo background checks and be up to date on their immunizations.

B.M.C. says they hope to expand the program in the spring. They have already been contacted by other hospitals nationwide that are interested in their success.