Baby cuddling is serious business at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital
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.
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.
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.”