Baby cuddling is serious business at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital

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One thing will make veteran real estate developer Larry Wasem drop everything and head to Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital.

It’s an on-call job with no pay. And it’s a far cry from his decades-long work as managing partner at Airport Business Center, which has numerous properties throughout Sonoma County.

It’s the opportunity to cuddle an inconsolable baby in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“I’ve always adored taking care of babies,” said Wasem, a tall, soft-spoken man whose success as a businessman wouldn’t be obvious if you didn’t already know. When he talks about babies, it’s clear he’s invested in their well-being. Wasem has three grown children and a 1-year-old grandson in Houston.

Several years ago, he came across a YouTube video of someone cuddling a baby in a hospital, which he described as “the perfect job.” That led him to do more research and subsequently contact several area hospitals to encourage them to start a baby cuddling program for NICU patients.

As it turned out, Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital had a need for baby cuddlers in its NICU. The unit also was in the process of making some changes, including how it cares for babies going through withdrawal after being born to a drug-addicted mother. A big component of that change involved the benefits of soothing those babies.

A common misperception is that these programs only benefit withdrawal babies, which is not always the case.Larry Wasem, commercial real estate veteran and NICU volunteer

Babies going through withdrawal are transferred from the Labor and Delivery Unit to the NICU if he or she meets the threshold for what’s called neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. Babies suffering NAS show symptoms that include gastrointestinal upset and musculoskeletal pain, which affects the muscles, ligaments and tendons, and bones.

Babies diagnosed with NAS receive high-level, specialized care in the NICU. But with that comes a bunch of potential triggers, from noisy machines and beeping monitors, to an environment with lots of activity and clinicians. For these withdrawal babies, that can be a recipe for exacerbated distress.

Traditionally, when an NAS baby would escalate, he or she would be rated across 21 symptoms, and if the overall distress level scored high, the baby would be given medication, typically methadone or morphine, also used for adults weaning off drugs. That method, known as the Finnegan scale, is still widely used in hospitals.

I can’t ask the nurses who have other patients to take care of … to sit and hold the baby.Tina Lubas, NICU manager at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital

The newer practice, called “eat, sleep, console,” follows a study that began in 2010 at the Yale University School of Medicine. Researchers, led by Dr. Matthew Grossman, concluded in 2017-2018 that withdrawal babies don’t necessarily need to be given medication when they’re experiencing high levels of distress.

Instead, when these babies were placed in a quiet environment with their mom, they often responded to being soothed and cuddled like healthy newborns. When they can’t be, then medication becomes the second line of defense. The Yale study also found that treating the babies using the eat, sleep, console approach can result in shorter hospital stays.

“My thinking was, if we need to do 'eat, sleep and console,' who’s going to help console if the mom can’t be here? I can’t ask the nurses who have other patients to take care of … to sit and hold the baby,” said NICU Manager Tina Lubas, who developed and implemented the program at Sutter. “So, how can we make this happen? We’ve got to get someone to cuddle the baby.”

And so the cuddler program was born.

“We started recruiting for the program last October and the first cuddlers started in April,” said Shaun Ralston, Sutter Health Regional Manager. Anyone interested in becoming a cuddler must go through a background check and training in order to qualify. The cuddlers have one role, and that’s to console the baby. They can’t give medication, change diapers, feed or provide any patient care, he explained.

While the Eat, Sleep, Console approach was the impetus for Sutter to start its cuddling program, the need goes further.

“A common misperception is that these programs only benefit withdrawal babies, which is not always the case,” said Wasem. When he arrives at the NICU, he sits down in a rocking chair in a quiet area. A nurse places the baby in his arms and he becomes visibly serene, gently rocking back and forth as he soothes the baby.

Cuddling also benefits premature babies, critically ill babies, as well as parents who may live far away or can’t get to the hospital for any number of reasons.

“One of my recent babies was a very small boy who simply didn’t like not being held,” Wasem said.

The need for cuddlers is particularly great at Sutter, given it’s a level 3 NICU, meaning it’s equipped to care for very sick newborns, including babies born as young as 27 weeks gestation and weighing as little as 2 pounds. Level 3 facilities also house many pediatric medical subspecialties, of which Sutter Santa Rosa has nearly a dozen. Its NICU has 43 nurses on staff.

Some states have three levels of care for NICUs, while others go as high as level 4, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A NICU designated as level 4 usually means it also has regional responsibilities.

Sutter’s NICU currently has three volunteer cuddlers, but Lubas said it’s not enough, and that the nurses agree. The goal is to have 10 cuddlers. Anyone with an interest who is willing to be on-call and commit to the program can apply, but Lubas does have one wish.

“What I’d ideally want, in my perfect world, is someone who likes the night shift because we are a 24-hour facility,” she said.

Wasem said he would like to be there as often as he can be, and freely admits that he’ll sometimes call the NICU to see if there’s a baby that needs cuddling. Most times, though, he’ll get the call when there’s an urgent need. And when it happens, the baby may need to be held for hours.

“It’s really very time-intensive,” Ralston said. “And it’s certainly a volunteer labor of love.”

Though the job sounds simple, it can be emotional because it’s easy to become attached to the infant.

Over the nearly five months that Wasem has been a cuddler, he’s held several babies and gotten to know two particularly well because he’s visited them many times. He doesn’t know in advance when a baby is going to be discharged from the hospital and it’s hard on him when he finds out.

“It’s astounding to me how quickly you really just fall in love with the baby,” he said, adding with a quip, “This can be really bad for my reputation; you know that.”

But he believes in the cause and has seen the positive effect on the babies.

“These babies are almost always hooked up to the monitors and could be running a heart rate of 190, which is normal, but you can pick up the baby and within five minutes that heart rate will be down to 120 or lower,” Wasem said. “And they haven’t woken up. They’re just being held, and they know it somehow. That was a revelation for me.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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