NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola launches baby cuddling program and volunteers can sign up to hug babies. NewsdayTV's Ken Buffa reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

Chantee Beckett's newborn, Cha’Niyah, was born premature and has spent the past 25 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola.

While Beckett, 41, of Hempstead, has always been confident in the care — her other daughter, Cha’Relle, 1, was in the unit for weeks after her premature birth last year — with the unit closed to child visitors, she and her husband can’t be at the hospital as often as they’d like.

Now, volunteers from the hospital’s new Care Cuddler Program are on hand to hold little Cha’Niyah when Beckett and her husband can’t. It's a welcome benefit Beckett didn't have with Cha'Relle.

“Who wouldn’t want to hold her?” Beckett said as she sat holding tiny Cha'Niyah Tuesday. “Kids, they need love, the touch, the feel. Someone to hold them. I feel a bit more at ease knowing that when I can’t be here, someone who cares is here to do that. I love it.”

Mom Chantee Beckett with baby daughter Cha’Niyah on Tuesday.

Mom Chantee Beckett with baby daughter Cha’Niyah on Tuesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Rolled out in September, the Cuddler program has 10 volunteers, most retired, some former nurses, who spend hours each week seated quietly in the neonatal unit, holding the newborn patients, whispering to them, singing to them, reading to them. Cuddling them.

It's welcome warmth in a unit filled with beeping monitors, medical equipment and incubator beds called Isolettes.

LaShon Pitter, nurse manager of the neonatal ICU, said the impact has been immediate. “You never want to hear babies cry,” she said. “This helps keep them calm. It really helps to satisfy the babies’ needs. It helps calm the staff, too.”

Similar programs have been instituted at hospitals nationwide. Dr. Nazeeh N. Hanna, chief of the neonatal ICU, said studies have found cuddling to be not just important for the current well-being of at-risk newborns but also to their future emotional, physical and social development.

Volunteer Norma Newman cuddles with baby Cha’Niyah Beckett on Tuesday.

Volunteer Norma Newman cuddles with baby Cha’Niyah Beckett on Tuesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

At any given time, there are more than two dozen newborns in the unit, each with a wide range of medical needs, Hanna said. Having cuddlers on hand allows doctors, nurses and staff more focused time to deal with those ailments and not short-change the emotional needs when parents can’t be there.

“Touch has proven to be so important to development,” Hanna said. “ . . . There’s something about the human touch, that warmth, that sends the message, ‘All is good.’”

The program was scheduled to start in 2020, hospital director of patient relations and volunteer services Jean Zebroski said. A group of 11 volunteers went through medical assessments, background checks and cuddler training, only to have the rollout sidelined by the pandemic.

All 11 came back for the September rollout, though one later was forced to leave due to personal reasons.

“They were dedicated to the program before it and have been dedicated to it since we came back,” Zebroski said. 

Cuddler volunteer Norma Newman, of Hempstead, is a retired nurse who spent much of her career at Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens. She has an adult son but lost an adult daughter to breast cancer.

“I wanted to do this because I always loved children and they always gravitated to me,” she said.

Volunteer Joseph Peluso with baby Valentina Imperato.

Volunteer Joseph Peluso with baby Valentina Imperato. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Volunteer Joe Peluso, 70, of Floral Park, spent much of his career in the financial service industry. A Bronx native, he has three adult children and does a lot of volunteer work.

“My wife always said I was a patient dad,” Peluso said. “ . . . I talk to the child, sing to them, read books. It’s soothing to me, also. Sitting there, the quiet time.

"It brings back memories.”

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