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‘A Love For Babies’: Newborn Cuddler Program Relaunched at UAB

Debra Nelson returns to the UAB Neonatal Helping Hands program three years after it was paused due to COVID-19. (Photography: Jennifer Alsabrook-Turner/UAB)
By Hannah Echols
UAB News

“When I grow up, that’s what I want to do,” Debra Nelson thought to herself as she watched a volunteer walk around the hospital nursery providing comfort to the newborns, including Nelson’s first child.

Nelson never forgot about the volunteer, and when she retired 38 years later, she sought out a similar program. Her sister, who works at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, referred her to the cuddler volunteer program in the UAB Regional Newborn Intensive Care Unit and Continuing Care Nursery. Nelson immediately applied.

“It was a dream come true when I was finally approved as a volunteer,” Nelson said. “I loved every minute of it. I wanted to care for every baby on the unit no matter if it was by changing their diapers and clothes or rocking them to sleep.”

Nelson worked as a volunteer until March 2020 when the program was halted due to COVID-19 precautions. She never stopped thinking about her babies. Fast forward to 2023, and she received a call she had waited three years for — the cuddler program was back.

“I felt like I won the lottery when they called asking if I’d want to return to the new program,” Nelson said. “I got the call in January and was back on the floor in February. It meant the world to me to be back in my favorite place providing care and support for the babies and their families.”

Physical touch, such as cuddling, is essential for infants to thrive and is a key component in infant development. The UAB Medicine program, now named Neonatal Helping Hands, provides volunteers the opportunity to hold, rock, talk, sing and read to infants in the RNICU and CCN.

“Bringing the program back was important for not only our infants, but our families and staff,” said Sandra Milstead, family nurse liaison in the UAB Women and Infants Center. “Volunteers give parents peace of mind knowing that there is someone to nurture and hold their babies when they cannot be present. They are also a helping hand for our nursing staff.”

Desiray Colunga met Nelson a few days after her son, Mario, was born and admitted to the CCN. A first-time mom, Colunga was relieved knowing her son would always have someone to hold him close.

“When I met Debra, I knew this role was what she was meant to do,” Colunga said. “It means a lot knowing that Debra and other volunteers are here when we are not.”

Most infants in the RNICU and CCN are premature and require specialty care. Volunteers undergo training to learn how to properly handle the babies who are often hooked up to various devices and are smaller and more fragile than other infants.

“This job takes someone with dedication, patience, kindness and a love for babies,” Nelson said. “Parents cannot always be here, so it is our duty to step in and make sure all of our babies receive love and care.”

The Neonatal Helping Hands program is accepting applications for new volunteers. Volunteer shifts are four hours, and shifts are available seven days a week. For more information or to apply, contact UAB Volunteer Services at 205-934-4270 or email volunteerservices@uabmc.edu.