Alia Johnston, one of three new volunteer baby huggers at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, holds Isabella, a two-month old baby who was born addicted to substances. TAMARA CUNNINGHAM/News Bulletin

Nanaimo hospital program ensures babies get enough hugs

Huggies’ No Baby Unhugged program has launched at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital

Gillian McKay cradles her sleeping granddaughter in her arms, just the way she has since Isabella first came into this world.

The two-month old baby was born at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital addicted to substances. Her mother was unable to take part in her care, so every day, McKay would go to the hospital and gather the newborn in her arms, knowing how important it was for Isabella to get skin-to-skin contact.

“I would come in every day, whether she was asleep or awake and just pick her up and put her in my arms and she didn’t do any more of that high-pitched screaming, she was calm, she’d eat,” she said, adding when babies who are born addicted scream at the top of their lungs, sneeze, cough, yawn and seem to be in pain and it was the way Isabella seemed to be until she was tightly hugged.

“It was just a joy to come and see that difference being made.”

Now Island Health and Huggies are making sure no baby will go unhugged at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital.

NRGH is the fourth in Canada and the second on Vancouver Island, following Victoria General Hospital, to roll out Huggies’ No Baby Unhugged program, in which trained and screened volunteers cuddle, rock and even sing to newborns at the neonatal intensive care unit and pediatric unit if parents are unable to be with their babies.

The program is through a partnership with the Canadian Association of Paediatric Health Centres and involves a $25,000 donation from Huggies to train volunteers and purchase resources like rocking chairs.

According to Island Health, between 275-300 babies are admitted to Nanaimo’s NICU each year, which as only one of two of its kind on Vancouver Island, can see patients from Port Hardy to the Comox Valley, Tofino and Port Alberni.

Hospital employees say parents or guardians may not always be able to be by babies’ sides if they’re from out of town or have other children they have to care for. Some parents aren’t allowed to see their baby and a guardian isn’t available 24 hours a day.

“We draw from a large catchment area, so sometimes parents aren’t immediately available and sometimes our specially trained nurses are focused on some of the high-acuity skills that they need to be doing in the neonatal ICU, so having someone that can just come in and provide that extra little layer of human comfort, of human touch, of human contact, singing, rocking babies, is reassuring to everybody,” said Shauna Kazeil, manager of perinatal and pediatrics at NRGH, who noted hugs are important in helping babies calm themselves, stabilize vital signs, feed, grow and thrive.

Juanita Parsonage, nurse clinician for NICU, saw the power of skin-to-skin contact with two premature twins, born at 30 weeks, who needed respiratory support. They weren’t doing great, she said, but when those little babies were placed on their mother’s chest, within five minutes their oxygen levels were up to 100 per cent. It was like a miracle, Parsonage said, telling the News Bulletin it still brings tears to her eyes.

McKay believes there’s no baby that shouldn’t be hugged in this or any community and called the new program “awesome.”

“Whenever I was in the room with Isabella, I would think about the baby that was in the room around the corner that nobody was there for and that was really hard,” she said. “Often times the parents just can’t be there for whatever reason, so during the days when there’s nobody around, the babies will get hugged anyways.”

The hospital doesn’t presently need volunteer huggers.

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