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Published on November 22, 2017

Judy Ashton rocking a baby in the NICU

NICU Rock-A-Baby Volunteer Provides Healing Touch to Premature Babies

“After retiring in 2009, God gave me an amazing opportunity to start baby-rocking,” recalls Judy Ashton, a NICU Rock-A-Baby volunteer at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Center’s Level IIIB Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). “It’s a real privilege to get to be the arms of Jesus for these babies when their parents aren’t able to be here.”

But for her, it’s not just about rocking premature babies.

“When I hold babies I also pray for them,” she says. “I ask God to finish knitting them together and making them whole and healthy. I pray that they’ll be a real blessing to their families. Then I just talk to them. And some of them will smile, even while they’re sleeping.”

Comforting Voice

According to Avera NICU Nurse Manager, Angela Riley, NP, talking is one of the most important things a NICU Rock-A-Baby volunteer can do, in addition to providing the comfort of human touch.

The new NICU rooms at Avera McKennan provide a quiet, healing environment. However, that quietness can also have a drawback. “Research has shown that language development is slower for patients in single patient rooms like ours. So we really encourage our volunteers to talk, read and sing to the babies. We don’t even care if they’re in tune,” she laughs. 

Healing Touch

Volunteers also provide a special, healing touch by holding babies while they’re being fed. Oftentimes, premature babies associate eating with being poked or prodded with feeding tubes and wires. “Adding human touch during feedings helps the babies build positive associations with eating,” says Riley. “This is very important for their growth and development.”

Kayla Konrady – the mother of four-month-old Arya who has been in the NICU since she was born at 25 weeks, weighing only 1 pound 15 ounces – is thankful for how the nurses and volunteers have helped her daughter grow to a healthy 9 pounds 2 ounces. “Feeding is our rollercoaster right now, but if she is held while eating it’s a positive thing for her. It’s awesome that (volunteers) can love on her too. It helps a lot.”

Grateful Hearts

Riley notices a similar gratitude among many NICU families. “Most parents aren’t able to be here full time, so they have a sense of relief knowing that someone is holding their baby when they can’t be here. And if babies are too small or fragile to be held, they still benefit from having a volunteer talking, reading or singing to them.”

Ashton relates to the feelings that many NICU parents may experience. After the birth of her second child, a daughter, she wasn’t able to hold her for nine days due to a medical complication. “That’s why I’m excited and thankful that they have this program,” she says. “I think it’s really helpful to the parents whatever their situation.”

“It’s a real privilege for me to be able to snuggle these babies and give some love to them,” she adds. “And it’s amazing to see how much they improve. Like when they no longer need breathing or feeding tubes anymore and you can see their whole face and their smiles. It’s very rewarding and a real blessing.”

Ashton was recently recognized as the September Volunteer of the Month at Avera McKennan for her compassion, care and dedication to the Avera NICU Rock-A-Baby program. 

November is Prematurity Awareness Month.

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Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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