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Initiative to encourage more cuddles for poorly babies in the NICU

Matt and baby Otis

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at University Hospitals Plymouth have launched an initiative to encourage more parents to have skin-to-skin contact with their babies during their stay in hospital, as part of celebrating International Kangaroo Care Awareness Day this month.

Matt and baby Otis The Plymouth NICU cares for babies born in Plymouth and other hospitals in the south west region who are born much earlier than expected (preterm) or who require intensive care if they are very poorly when born at full term. The ‘Cuddle Bundle’ initiative will help to support more parents to be able to hold and cuddle their babies, who are predominantly kept in incubators whilst in the NICU.

“There are a number of benefits for babies being cared for in the NICU having skin-to-skin contact,” explains Alicia Regan, Paediatric Registrar. “Evidence shows that having cuddles can help to stabilise a baby’s heart rate, respiratory rates and temperature. They can also help to improve sleep, breastfeeding and digestion, as well as aid growth and development and reduce pain.

“For babies who are too unwell to come out of the incubator, we encourage contact through ‘hand hugs’, whereby a parent gently places their hands over their baby's head and then either cups baby's feet or places their hands lightly over baby's torso with arms and legs in a flexed position. This touch provides great comfort to baby and helps parents to feel that sense of closeness.”

As part of the initiative, a team of doctors and nurses have created a number of resources and educational tools including videos to help to give both staff and parents the knowledge and confidence to safely transfer and hold babies, where it is deemed clinically safe to do so.

New posts are also being created at the Trust, including two band 7 nurses, who will be responsible for the developmental care and overall wellbeing of babies in the NICU, with a particular focus on supporting breastfeeding and encouraging skin-to-skin contact.

Claire and baby Otis Roisin McKeon-Carter, Neonatal Nurse Consultant, said: “Understandably, in an intensive care environment, the main focus has to be on clinical care. That’s why these new roles are so important, as it will provide our staff with greater capacity to aid complementary care such as skin-to-skin, in addition to the support they already give to parents.

“Here in the NICU we work together with parents as our partners, we don’t simply see them as visitors of patients. It’s wonderful to see parents so enthusiastically engaged and working together with us as a team to advocate for more cuddles with their babies.


“It can be challenging when not all babies are stable enough to come out for cuddles, especially when connected to oxygen and feeding tubes, central lines and monitoring wires, but the team here are really innovative and do their best to find ways to make it work. Our staff regularly go above and beyond and it’s really clear that everyone wants what is best for both our patients and their families. I’m really proud of the team and how they are working collaboratively to champion skin-to-skin contact.”

Claire and Matt are new parents to baby Otis, who was born at 29 weeks. “At first, with your baby so little and so fragile, it’s really daunting to hold them. But the team here are really helpful and encouraging, and if you’re even that little bit nervous, they’re really good at putting you at ease and making sure you feel comfortable,” Claire explains. “As Otis has become more and more stable, the more we’ve had him out. I was shocked to learn how much it helps babies to develop, especially if they’re premature, even down to helping their immune system develop.”

Matt adds: “I can’t quite wrap my head around how important skin-to-skin contact is – there are just so many benefits that you can’t physically see. For us, of course, it’s really nice being able to cuddle our baby. But we’ve also found that his temperature regulation has been much better when he’s out with us than when he’s in the incubator.”

Baby OtisEmily Attard, Neonatal Sister, explains: “Having a baby in the NICU is always distressing for parents – they are never here by choice, it’s often through traumatic circumstances. It’s not the way that they wanted to start their lives together as a family. That’s why we involve the parents as much as possible with all aspects of their baby’s care. It’s so easy for new parents to feel alienated from their baby, especially with them being kept in incubators and connected to tubes and wires that constantly beep, so it’s so important for them to have that time to bond in the way they would have done if they were at home.”

Matt said: “When you can’t take your baby home with you from hospital, it’s so surreal, and it would be really easy to disconnect. For us, physical contact with Otis has been so important – it’s made everything feel real. Being able to take him out of the incubator for cuddles and not just look at him through a plastic screen has made us feel like parents. It gives you that bonding that you so desperately need.”

Chelsey, whose baby Arlo was born at 24 weeks, said: “To be able to hold him is amazing. It’s something I never thought I would be able to do, especially at such a small size. Words can’t describe it, it can be really overwhelming but it’s helped me so much emotionally, and even be able to express my milk.”

“It’s traumatic for both the baby and parents for them to be separated,” adds Alicia. “A baby has been used to hearing mum’s voice, smelling her, hearing and feeling her heartbeat and out of necessity they lose this when admitted to the NICU and baby is placed in an incubator. Bringing both parents and baby back together improves both the baby’s immediate and long-term outcomes.”

To find out more about the Plymouth NICU please visit:

To find out more about International Kangaroo Care Awareness Day please visit:

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