"Professional cuddlers:" Army of volunteers helps care for newborn babies at hospitals across SE WI

MILWAUKEE -- As any parent knows, the first few weeks of a newborn's life are a whirlwind, and they're also incredibly important in the child's development. Some hospitals in the Milwaukee area have a special program to help parents during those stressful times, and make sure the babies receive the care and attention they need.

There is rarely any down time in the Reed household -- with two working parents and four children.

Michelle Lahey Reed

"It`s insane. It`s insane. But, like, a fun insane. I wouldn`t trade it for the world," Michelle Lahey Reed, director of risk management services at Community Memorial Hospital on Town Hall Road in Menomonee Falls said.

But it's worth taking a moment, if they can spare one, to reflect on just how this crazy family came together.

"It`s been a wild ride, but just so much fun," Reed said.

In 2010, Reed, a lawyer by trade, began working at Community Memorial Hospital. In her spare time, she would head up to the "Birth Center" to help the nurses with newborn babies.

Michelle Lahey Reed and family

"It was awesome to get up there. You can hold them and love on them, sometimes feed them," Reed said.

From there, came an idea. Other hospitals across the country, including Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee had "cuddler" programs, where volunteers can hold babies that have extended hospital stays.

"Sometimes it can be three or four babies who are in the NICU, and maybe one nurse," Reed said.

Reed started a cuddler program at Community Memorial Hospital. It quickly spread to another hospital in the Froedtert system -- St. Joseph's Hospital in West Bend.

St. Joseph's Hospital in West Bend

It involved an army of volunteers, operating one gentle rock at a time.

"Professional cuddler. I think it`s kind of a fun name," Alexandria Zielinski, a sophomore at Marquette University said.

"It`s very soft and cozy, which is really the way we try to take care of our babies," Dr. Anna Hankins, general pediatrician at St. Joseph's Hospital said.

Whatever the medical reason, when a newborn has to stay in the hospital for a long time, the volunteer cuddlers give parents a necessary break.

"Sometimes we`ve had patients that actually are asking 'do you have anybody who would be able to come in for two hours so I can run home, do a load of laundry, feed my other kids and then come back?'" Maria Jostad, Birth Center manager at St. Joseph's Hospital said.

"When babies are held, their heart rates are more steady. Their respiratory rates -- how fast they breathe -- are more steady. Holding a baby skin-to-skin even regulates their blood sugar," Dr. Hankins said.

The volunteers are specially trained, and always under the watchful eye of a nurse. They come from all walks of life, from retired grandparents to young cuddlers like Zielinski, who has always wanted to be a nurse.

"Doing this direct patient contact has really solidified it for sure. And then it kind of steered me towards what I want to do, what I want to specialize in, which I think is women`s health," Zielinski said.

As for the Reed family, their story only gets more remarkable -- and things have sort of become full circle. After seeing numerous children at her hospital enter foster care, Michelle Reed and her husband decided to become foster parents. In February of 2014, twin girls joined their family.

"Learned pretty quickly I was a failure as a foster mother. I was not one who would be able to let go. And so, as luck would have it, I get to cuddle them forever," Reed said.

By December of 2014, the Reeds had officially adopted Addisyn and Abygail. Reed spent a long night pouring through her daughters' medical records, and buried among the thousands of pieces of paper was one startling nugget of information.

Addisyn and Abygail were cuddled when they were in the hospital.

Michelle Lahey Reed and family

"I sat there and cried for quite a bit. But just awesome to see that they were held and they were loved, even if it wasn`t by us -- by somebody else," Reed said.

Today, the twins are healthy, rambunctious three-year-old girls, and Reed has found herself benefiting from the same type of program she helped promote years ago.

Addisyn and Abygail

"I am so crazy blessed. All because I sat in a room in a rocking chair and held babies," Reed said.

As you may imagine, these positions are in high demand. At St. Joseph's Hospital and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, there are waiting lists, or they're at capacity. But volunteers are always needed for other services as well.

CLICK HERE to learn more about becoming a volunteer at Community Memorial Hospital in Menomonee Falls.

CLICK HERE to learn more about becoming a volunteer at St. Joseph's Hospital in West Bend.

CLICK HERE to learn more about becoming a volunteer at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.