Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
May 17, 2024 ·  4 min read

Hospitals Need ‘Baby Cuddlers’ to Help Babies With Opioid Withdrawal

This article was originally published on February 26, 2019, and has since been updated.

An opioid epidemic is affecting millions of newborn babies, nationwide. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that a baby is born suffering from opioid withdrawal every fifteen minutes [1].

These babies experience pain and suffering before they can experience anything else. Newborns brought into this world by mothers who suffer from addiction are ending up in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) – an ICU for infants – experiencing withdraw from the moment they enter this world.

Hospitals across the country have received volunteer aid by citizens who serve as ‘baby cuddlers’ they rock the infants to sleep and provide necessary human connection and love, allowing them a sense of comfort and peace.

These cuddler programs are becoming part-time jobs in Iowa, Virginia, San Antonio and Massachusetts to help combat the crisis. In the entire state of Texas, The University Hospital in Bexar County, San Antonio, has the highest number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which has spiked by 60 percent in the last five years.

When this University Hospital called out for baby cuddlers, Doug Walters, an Army Veteran was quick to volunteer, as Texas Public Radio reported. Walters has been a part-time baby cuddler for over three years now, specializing in NAS.  

An infant with NAS may experience symptoms that include tight muscles, subsequent body stiffness, tremors, seizures, and overly increased reflexes. These newborns are prone to gastrointestinal problems, and often have trouble breathing and being fed.

Often times these infants let out a high-pitched shriek, which is an identifiable cry from this syndrome. Doug says “You can tell when kids cry because they’re mad, or they’re hungry. When babies with NAS cry, it ’s just… A very sad cry,” he said. “They don’t understand what’s happening, and they don’t understand why things hurt”.

A nurse at this same University Hospital, Laurie Weaver, has been there for 27 years and has come to care for babies with NAS more than any other type of patient. Laurie feels as if these babies were “given a rough start, and I just like holding them and comforting them,” she said. For her, it’s a fairness factor — since these infants can’t speak for themselves yet, is what draws them to her more.

“Touch is so important for babies”, says Vicki Agnitsch, a former nurse who is a part of the Cuddler Volunteer program at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. “Without that, there would be a failure to thrive.”

Vicki says that the more cuddling and physical touch these infants receive has a direct correlation to a lesser amount of administered medications. The human connection provided through these programs support the immune systems of babies born with NAS.

“When they know someone else is touching them, it gives them that warmth and safety and security that they crave,” she explained. “They had that inside the mom, and then they come out into this cold, bright world. They don’t have that, so all of that swaddling, touch, and talk helps their development.”

The simple act of spending a few hours with newborns can improve and their well-being at a pivotal time of their life. Vicki says this Cuddler Volunteer program is “the best part of my week.”

Halfway across the country, Warrenton, Va.’s Fauquier Hospital has established a cuddling program of its own. Cheryl Poelma, director of women services told WTOP News that infants born with NAS typically receive morphine shortly after their birth to deal with their withdrawal symptoms.

These babies in withdrawal tend to be irritable “ they aren’t coordinated with their suck, they can’t eat well, they may sneeze a lot, have loose stools — it’s all part of withdrawing,” she said. This Hospital decided to implement a cuddler program in conjunction with the administration of morphine, as a two-pronged program. “They sit, and rock the infants, holding them tight,” she said. “They tend to like to have their hands close to their chests, they like a tight blanket swaddled around them. They also like to suck on pacifiers, so it’s rocking, sucking, keeping them in a quiet environment, reducing stimuli.”

Cheryl explained that results show in a matter of weeks. “You’ll see them engaging you more, their eye contact will be better, they’ll start feeding better, not being so fussy, and they’ll start to sleep better,” she said.

This form of proactive empathy is making a difference in the world – especially for those who are least able to help and support themselves.


  1. Volunteer cuddlers help heal NICU babies at Iowa Hospital
  2. Maternal-Preterm Skin-to-Skin Contact Enhances Child Physiologic Organization and Cognitive Control Across the First 10 Years of Life
  3. Volunteer cuddlers help Fauquier newborns kick opioid dependence
  4. A Cry For Baby Cuddlers In San Antonio As Opioid Crisis Deepens
  5. 7 Chilling Things To Know About The Opioid Crisis In The United States