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Volunteer huggers help hospitalized babies recover quicker

Mary Ann Niewald walks into the room, stands over the child, and quiets herself.

She looks over her shoulder to confirm the baby’s name on the nurse’s chart. It is Hannah.

Then she gently picks up the infant.

“Oh, you’re such a sweet baby,” Niewald whispers.

Hannah moves slightly inside her tight wrapping, exhales lightly, and falls back asleep.

Niewald gazes at the child and smiles adoringly.

They are two people at the opposite ends of life. A five-pound baby and a 73-year-old woman.

But it is impossible to tell who is helping the other more.

Across the world on Christmas day, people will hear the story of how a child was born and inspired people to lead better lives.

Niewald is reminded of that every week.

She is a volunteer “cuddler” at Banner Children’s Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Mesa.

She holds children who are in the hospital for extended stays.

“It changes my whole life, holding these babies,” Niewald said. “It has changed my outlook. Loving these babies fills my whole world with love.”

A proven aid

For decades, researchers have shown that hospitalized babies who are held more get healthier faster.

A study published in a 2003 Journal of Pediatric Psychology is representative of most. It showed that preterm infants who were held and stroked gained weight faster and slept better.

A 1975 study in Child Psychiatry and Human Development found that premature babies who received extra stroking for 10 days were more alert.

More recent studies have questioned if it is cost effective to have nurses hold and stroke babies. With volunteers, that’s not an issue.

After training and background checks, the volunteers start holding babies where they are needed in the hospital.

They can calm a child who is uncomfortable, hold a baby whose parents are busy that day, or simply provide a human touch for an infant who spends too much time being poked and prodded.

So the volunteers hold the babies to help the babies heal.

And yet seemingly all of the volunteers say it is not the babies who benefit the most.

Why they do it

Donny Closson, 42, drives from Anthem once a week to volunteer at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

He is a father of three who witnessed the good these volunteers do during the time he spent in hospitals when his wife delivered their three sons.

A former recreational skydiver, he says helping a child is like jumping out of an airplane.

“Once you leave an aircraft, and you are falling to earth, nothing else in your life matters. All the garbage just goes away. This is like that,” he said.

“When I leave here, I am centered differently.”

As a developmental specialist at Banner Children’s Hospital, Mary Ann Sawyer, a registered nurse, sees the mutual benefit for the children and the holders.

“It gives the baby a moment of normalcy in the middle of all this clinical stuff,” she said. “For the cuddlers, it is amazing. I see a really positive energy. It’s filling their cup as they fill the baby’s cup.”

And the change is not just in the moment for the volunteers.

Sue Hess, 70, of Tempe, has been holding babies for nearly three years.

“Loving these babies has a calming effect on me,” she said standing outside a child’s room. “And when I leave the hospital, and I see people, I say, ‘You too were once a baby.’ That is good. We all need that.”

Then a nurse approached her.

“C-pod needs a friend,” the nurse said.

“What’s his name?” asked Hess.

“Cameron.”

“Oh, I know him,” said Hess. “That’s a good baby. I have some love for him.”

Not alone

Sometimes it is not possible to see result from holding or spending time with a child.

A few months ago, a child-life specialist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital asked Closson to read to a child.

Closson said he was told the child was in a coma with no brain activity.

“I was a little bit surprised, it’s not what I expected,” Closson said.

But he went to her room and read to her.

Her status unchanged, Closson still goes to her room and reads to her on his volunteer shifts.

“It’s different. I don’t see the smile with her. I don’t see the reflection of what it means,” he said. “But I feel the same. It’s beneficial. She is not alone for the time that I am with her.”

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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