BOSTON — Gloria Cerullo spends hours each month talking to newborns about what they might study in college. She runs through the alphabet — A is for architect, B is for biologist.
“You literally feel the difference,” she said. “You feel them calm down.”
And they need calm. These are newborns born dependent on opioids, the youngest victims of an epidemic that’s touched every corner of the country. Even when mothers seek treatment for their addictions early in pregnancy, they are typically urged to stay on methadone to minimize the risk of miscarriage. That means babies are often born experiencing symptoms of withdrawal — such as twitching and tremors, trouble feeding, and difficulty sleeping.
Enter the volunteer cuddlers.
Boston Medical Center has dubbed its program CALM, for Cuddling Assists in Lowering Maternal and infant stress. Many babies born dependent on opioids get methadone to ease their symptoms, but this program puts an emphasis on non-pharmacologic care for babies suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. Often, that starts with skin-to-skin contact.
“They’re calmed by the fact that someone is holding them,” said pediatrician Dr. Elisha Wachman, who runs the CALM program and has studied NAS at Boston University.
Programs like BMC’s, reminiscent of initiatives in the ’80s and ’90s to soothe babies born dependent on crack, are popping up across the country. At Magee-Womens Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the volunteer cuddler program for NAS newborns is booming — and more than 200 potential volunteers are on a wait list.
“It’s a positive thing for both the emotional support to parents and for providing those soothing, comforting measures to babies,” said Maribeth McLaughlin, vice president of operations at Magee-Womens Hospital. Its program, which launched a decade ago, has about 35 volunteer cuddlers on call.
At Boston Medical Center, Wachman spent a few years honing the drug regimen for NAS babies, but it only helped so much. She estimated up to 90 percent of NAS babies at the hospital were being treated with medication.
“We really weren’t pushing non-pharmacologic care first,” Wachman said. “It was sort of an added thing you could do maybe, but medication was first.”
Wachman started by making a push to get parents engaged with care — encouraging them to cuddle their babies when possible, promoting breastfeeding, and making it easier for parents who may have scheduling conflicts to visit with their newborns in the hospital. “We’re really promoting the parents as the primary treatment for the baby,” Wachman said.
But some parents are in residential treatment programs with a curfew, while others have to leave the hospital during the day for their own care. “Once the moms leave the hospital, there are some parents that find it really difficult to get back here,” Wachman said.
So the cuddlers step in.
The CALM program, which launched last month, has about 100 volunteers, including medical school students — many of whom field the late-night shifts. Each volunteer spends two hours with an NAS infant who’s showing symptoms of withdrawal.
They rock, they sing, they soothe.
Pam Turcotte, who works as a recruiter at the hospital, has been singing Christmas carols.
“They just need someone to hold them, and love them, and get them through it,” she said. She signed up for the program as soon as she heard about it — her grandchild was born with NAS and she knew she wanted to help.
“This is something that I needed to do,” she said, “and it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.”
The results so far have been dramatic.
“We’ve been able to drop our medication treatment rates by about 40 percent,” Wachman said.
The programs can also save hospitals money. It costs about $2,100 a day for Boston Medical Center to house an NAS baby, and it treats about 120 such infants each year. If the program can cut the stay for each baby in half, that would translate to about $2 million in annual savings, Wachman said.
They’re working toward that, one cuddle at a time.
Update: You can apply for BMC’s program here. If you’re outside the Boston area and want to volunteer, call your local hospital to see whether they have a program.