Hug therapy: Volunteers stimulate the development of premature babies in Argentina

The initiative of a public maternity hospital in the city of Córdoba seeks to reduce the stress of living in an incubator for newborns, whose mothers are absent for various reasons

sala de cuidados intermedios de la Maternidad provincial de Córdoba
Irma Castro hugs a baby next to an incubator, in the intermediate care room of the Provincial Maternity Hospital of Córdoba, Argentina, on January 14, 2024.RAMIRO PEREYRA

Irma Castro, 60, sits in the neonatology room of the Provincial Maternity Hospital of Córdoba, in Argentina, with a premature baby pressed to her chest. The child’s face touches the skin of the woman, who looks down at him in silence. As he listens to her heartbeat, the little one sighs, letting out the stress that living in an incubator causes him. He will remain like this, calm, for the next two hours, feeling Irma’s healing heat, until it’s time to return to the apparatus, where he receives intensive care.

Irma is one of the hospital’s volunteer “huggers.” She offers her embrace to enhance the neurodevelopment of premature or underweight babies, whose mothers are absent because they have passed away, have limited economic resources, live far from the ward, have other children, are incarcerated, are victims of domestic abuse, or are addicted to substances.

There are 50 volunteers — 49 women and one man — who donate their time to accompany the newborns. And there are more than 200 applicants on the waiting list. “I want [the babies] to be certain that, since they were born, they’ve been loved and accepted. It’s amazing how [valiant] they are, they have such a desire to live,” Castro sighs. A retired teacher, she has been a volunteer for more than two years.

Nancy Sánchez Zanón — head of the Maternity Neonatology Department — explains that the average period of intensive care in an incubator lasts around 12 days, but can be extended for months, depending on the pathology and prematurity of the baby in question. In this hospital, about 1,500 babies — of the approximately 5,200 born each year — require intensive care. And about 15% of these little ones need to be hugged.

Contacto bebés prematuros
A one-month-old baby clings to the hand of volunteer Irma Castro. RAMIRO PEREYRA

Ana María Rognone — head of intermediate care at the Maternity Hospital and coordinator of the program — explains that the project was born within the framework of volunteering in “safe and family-centered maternity wards,” key to perinatal care in the public hospitals of Córdoba. It began in 2010, replicating a strategy promoted in Buenos Aires by the Ramón Sardá Mothers’ and Children’s Hospital, together with UNICEF.

This approach seeks humanized care, with a focus on the rights of the mother and child. This occurs by improving the quality of care and reducing maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality. Ideally, parents and families assume a leading role in care. For instance, they learn about the benefits of breastfeeding. For their part, the institutions offer residences, so that mothers can remain close to their babies. They also invite members of the community to get involved in volunteer activities.

“The healthcare team cannot do it alone. With families, it adds up, and with the community, it adds up even more,” Rognone affirms. In 2017, the “huggers” were incorporated, thanks to the information provided by a volunteer about the infant cuddler programs that are carried out in Canada, with the children of mothers who are addicted to heroin. This format was adapted to Argentina.

A comprehensive health strategy

The volunteers support the healthcare team: they detect if a baby doesn’t receive visitors, learn about the difficulties that the mothers are facing and replace any maternal absence with their own bodies. For this to take place, the mother’s written consent is requested.

Hugging helps the babies grow faster and gain weight. “This is a health strategy, with a supportive health team, with a scientific basis and with a training process [required to be able to] volunteer,” Rognone emphasizes. To join the program, you must be over the age of 18, have no criminal record and go through an extensive screening process. Then, the selection depends on the availability of time and expectations.

Contacto bebés prematuros
Ana María Rognone — the head of intermediate care at the Maternity Hospital and volunteer coordinator — checks on a baby inside an incubator. RAMIRO PEREYRA

Nancy Sánchez Zanón insists that the function of the “huggers” is to be at the service of the mothers and be the link with the healthcare team. But, without a doubt, the value of a human embrace is significant. “It’s very good to know that, for two hours, the baby will be in contact with a person and not assisted in an incubator. The hug relieves tension and calms anguish,” Paula Yacante explains. The 50-year-old Spanish-to-English translator was one of the first to join the volunteer program.

The head of Neonatology explains that it’s scientifically proven that babies develop better and faster when they have physical contact with their mother. In the event that the parent is absent, the link with a third person is also effective. “Skin-to-skin contact helps the child grow and regain weight faster. [This contact] promotes neurodevelopment, protection, care and growth. [A child] is less stressed, because they’re in someone’s arms. They’re supported emotionally, they can regulate their temperature more easily… [The infants are less prone to sleep apnea] and gain weight faster compared to if they weren’t linked to anyone,” the doctor details.

Pierina Vans — a 52-year-old interior designer and volunteer — adds that, upon being hugged, the baby displays his or her primary survival instinct: they relax and feel protected. They stop consuming their own energy. “When you hug them — when the baby has skin-to-skin contact — they sigh and the color of their skin begins to change,” she says.

“When you take the baby, you can see that their hands are clenched, but then they relax and their heart rate drops,” the doctor notes. In the event that the babies cannot be hugged due to the impossibility of disconnecting their intravenous lines or tubes, the volunteers reach into the incubator and hold the baby’s hand, or rest theirs on the child’s legs or chest.

“You are filled by feeling how — in that small body — there’s so much desire to live. There’s an attachment to how beautiful life is,” Irma Castro says. She believes that helping a child have a better beginning is a way of contributing to humanity.

Contacto bebés prematuros
While doing her volunteer shift as a cuddler, Irma enjoys the baby's company. Skin-to-skin contact improves the neurodevelopment of premature or underweight infants. RAMIRO PEREYRA

María Cristina Nieva — a 45-year-old educational psychologist — feels privileged to fulfill this task as a volunteer. “I feel peace, love, satisfaction. When they’re discharged, it’s a great joy, especially [when they’ve] been there for a long time and have passed through the arms of everyone. We celebrate it,” she remarks.

The word “love” is often repeated by the women, with moist eyes. “We offer the baby a moment of emotional fusion, tranquility, security, comfort, warmth. I feel that I’m adding my grain of sand,” says volunteer Paula Otto, 52.

Healing with affection

Cuddling babies for a couple of hours begins after they’ve been changed and fed. “Nurses are our guides, because babies aren’t always in a position to be hugged. Sometimes, they have to undergo medical [treatment]. The professionals guide us,” Pierina clarifies.

They take them out of the incubator while carefully following a protocol. They then rest the babies on their chests, trying to be as calm as possible. This way, the babies can relax. If the mother or father shows up at that moment, the infant is handed over to them immediately. “We’re a substitute for that absence,” Vans points out.

The volunteers also tour the wards, noting down the needs of the mother. Marcela Mancardo — a 59-year-old housewife and volunteer — says that the first baby she hugged hadn’t had contact with her mother due to a health problem. The baby went from the delivery room to the incubator. “I was the first to hug her: it was my first time as a volunteer. It was an explosion of love. I cried at home,” she recalls.

Volunteer Susana Sassy — an 82-year-old retired architect — says that, when she holds a newborn, she touches the sky with her hands. “It’s wonderful to hear that little heart beating. Many of us have been mothers, but this is different: you’re committed to a different love. It is giving light, life and love,” she says.

Part of the team: Susana Sassy, in the middle, along with Eugenia Lucca, Marcela Mancardo, Verónica Conci and Pierina Vanz.
Part of the team: Susana Sassy, in the middle, along with Eugenia Lucca, Marcela Mancardo, Verónica Conci and Pierina Vanz. RAMIRO PEREYRA

Verónica Conci — a 52-year-old therapeutic companion and one of the newest volunteers — remembers that, during her training, she was struck by a phrase uttered by Ana Rognone, who was quoting the French gynecologist Michel Oddent: “To change the world, we must first change the way the babies are being born.”

“We can change the way a baby comes into this world: [the process] can be more humane, and they can be more content, more loved. [The baby] should feel like she’s important,” Conci affirms. “Being in an incubator for 24 hours, or for three days, isn’t the same as someone picking you up, hugging you and giving you their heart and skin, which is what we give,” she points out. She thinks that, perhaps, when she lends her chest and arms to a child, she affects their future.

The work of the “huggers” has become better known in recent times. At the end of last year, they were given an award and publicly-recognized by the city of Córdoba. “[It was important to show that], from the outside, you can be in a neonatology room. It’s important to cover for vulnerable populations who cannot be with their baby at that time,” Rognone emphasizes. For her, all maternity hospitals should incorporate the community to accompany families. “[Caring isn’t possible] with medicine alone, but with affection.”

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