Blog Post

Freeman NICU Caring Cuddler Program Provides Enriching Benefits

July 27, 2020

Karen Graham, RN
The Freeman NICU Cuddler Program gives parents the much-needed help when they’re unable to be with their little ones.

Although the birth of a baby is an expected event, the delivery of a baby who needs intensive medical care is often unexpected. Occasionally, obligations at home and work mean families cannot visit the hospital each day to spend time with their new bundle of joy. Understanding the importance of infants being held and comforted, Freeman launched the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Cuddler Program, in November 2019, giving parents the much-needed help when they’re unable to be with their little ones.

For most situations in which a newborn would benefit from human contact, the first choice is the baby’s mother or other family members. In some circumstances, though, the mother is sick or the family needs to tend to other children at home. Maybe the family lives far away, and they can’t be with the baby all the time. In those cases, having an extra pair of cuddly arms may come in handy. “For most parents, having their baby in the neonatal ICU is the most stressful time of their lives. Any parent will attest that no amount of time spent at their child's bedside is long enough,” explained Dr. Rahul Oberoi, Freeman NICU physician. “Due to various reasons, a lot of families are unable to visit their baby even daily. As a medical community, we know the reduced interaction and bonding a neonate experiences while in the NICU can have long-lasting implications. This is where the Cuddler Program can help bridge the gap in order to improve long term brain and developmental outcomes. Feedback thus far from parents has been positive, and the support from the community has been tremendous!”

Some would describe it as the coolest volunteer opportunity ever, providing snuggles, love and developmentally appropriate support under the guidance and direction of the medical staff in the Freeman NICU. “One of the biggest benefits the Cuddler Team provides is the knowledge and satisfaction that we’re helping soothe the youngest of our next generation, at a crucial time when they’re in need of additional comforting,” said Karen Graham, RN, Cuddler Program Coordinator. “We exist to fill the gap when parents or family members are unable to be with their newborn patient. For a Cuddler to have a tiny patient totally relax in their arms, while they’re talking, reading or singing softly to them, is such a joy and a privilege. And it’s truly a team effort! The NICU nurses, physicians, staff and Cuddlers all work together to help these little angels have a positive beginning in life.”

A Cuddler volunteer is a trained adult who’s able to hold and talk to the baby in soothing and stimulating tones and words, sing to the baby in rhymes and favorite lullabies, and console the baby with positive touch and sensitive comfort. The typical role of a volunteer Cuddler is not to replace the baby’s family but to provide additional support. “Several years ago, I learned of NICU Cuddlers in California, and it was my dream to begin a Cuddler Program in my hometown of Joplin when I retired,” said Graham. “While being employed at Freeman, Paula Baker, Freeman President and CEO, Dr. Dennis Estep, Freeman Chief Medical Officer, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Freeman Health System allowed me the opportunity to start the program for our tiniest patients, and we began our first shift on November 6, 2019. The program was made available from funding provided through our Children’s Miracle Network Hospital’s partnership at Freeman.”

Requirements to become a volunteer Cuddler include: interview and selection process, background check, drug screen, physical plus immunizations and flu shots. Program training with the Freeman Cuddler Coordinator, Freeman Volunteer Services Program Manager and NICU nurses includes safety, confidentiality, handwashing protocol and infection prevention and control. The Cuddlers do not feed, change or get up and walk with infants. The popular program is currently full and therefore not accepting applications.

For questions regarding the Freeman Cuddler Program please contact Karen Graham, RN, at 417.347.3922 or