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Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community

Volunteer cuddlers offer comfort to infants and parents

Volunteer baby cuddlers Pat Rice (seated) and Claire Fitzgerald open their arms to hospitalized infants.


During 16 years of volunteering to cuddle babies in the intensive-care nurseries at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, husband-and-wife psychologists Pat Rice and Claire Fitzgerald have developed a few trade secrets for calming fussy infants.

Rice favors a foghorn imitation.

“Boo booooooo,” he demonstrated, his low voice rumbling beautifully. “The resonance and low tone seem to have a positive effect,” he said. Rice also sings quietly to the babies he’s holding—usually “When You’re Smiling, the Whole World Smiles with You”—which once prompted a person across the room to ask, “Is someone playing a tuba in here?”

The hospital’s baby cuddlers provide extra pairs of loving arms for sick infants, reducing the strain of long hospitalizations on both the infants and their families

“The baby cuddler program has tremendous value,” said neonatologist David Stevenson, MD, director of the hospital’s Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services. Parents with hospitalized infants must sometimes be away from the bedside, and physicians and nurses are focused on their patients’ essential medical needs, which sometimes limits their time to attend to more personal needs, said Stevenson, a professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

“The cuddlers are volunteers who address the personal needs of another small human being, holding and talking to them when their parents can’t be present,” he said. “The cuddlers become a part of the health-care team.”

Many years ago, Fitzgerald was in the shoes of the worried parents whose babies she now comforts. When her son was 3 months old, he was hospitalized with a suspected brain tumor at what was then Stanford Children’s Hospital. Fortunately, he was found not to have a tumor and is now the father of three daughters. But the experience left its mark on the young mother.

“People were so fabulous to me,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought, ‘When my hair turns gray, I’m going to come back and say thank you.’” Years later, she began volunteering at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in patient relations, soon adding baby cuddling to her commitments and persuading her husband to join her. “I came home and said, ‘They need some men doing this, too.’”

Most of the cuddlers are women, but Rice would like to see more men volunteer because of the reassurance their example can offer to anxious new fathers. “Some of them are tentative, and I think it helps them to see me,” he said.

Fitzgerald recently received the President’s Volunteer Service Award, honoring her for more than 4,000 volunteer hours at the hospital. She now trains new cuddler volunteers.

Among the couple’s favorite patients was an infant born 14 weeks early. At first, the tiny girl was too small to be held, but as she grew and gained strength, Fitzgerald and Rice cuddled her and cheered for her development, rejoicing when she went home. 

Eight years later, they were at a soccer match for one of their granddaughters when the coach invited them to meet his daughter.

“I thought it was nice that he was introducing us to the team,” Fitzgerald said. “And then this beautiful little girl came up and said, ‘May I hug you? My mommy says you held me when I was just a little baby.’” It was the same girl, grown into a healthy child who loves to play soccer and ride horses.

Fitzgerald and Rice are grateful that cuddling allows them to make a difference in the world.

“When you hold these little babies and see their heart rate get back to normal, you know you’re doing something important,” Fitzgerald said.

“It’s become a major focus of our lives,” Rice added. “It’s an opportunity to extend something we both treasure — to help create an environment that’s conducive to the growth and healing of these babies.”

To learn more about volunteering, please call 650-497-8696 or visit lpch.org/jobsVolunteering/Volunteering/index.html.

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