If your life hasn’t been touched by the opioid epidemic of recent years, consider yourself lucky. It’s the worst drug crisis we’ve ever faced in our country’s history. The numbers are staggering — this addiction kills more people than either car accidents or gun violence. Because actionable solutions are unclear and complex, these tragedies are only projected to rise.
The pain is especially astronomical when you consider that one addiction affects multitudes. Opioid addiction is a silent killer, and it sends ripples through communities, penetrating neighborhoods, wounding families, and hurting even the most vulnerable: newborns. Through no fault of their own, babies born to opioid-using mothers come into this world wholly addicted to these dangerous drugs.
“You can tell these babies really like to be held tightly — you see it on the monitor,” Laura Johnson explains, holding a newborn going through withdrawal. “If I hold them tightly, their blood pressure goes down and their heart rate decreases. It’s amazing how you can feel the difference, so immediately.”
In 2014, shortly after the opioid epidemic took a sudden uptick, there was an announcement on a local radio station asking for volunteers for baby cuddlers. A nurse and a mother of five, this need piqued Johnson’s interest. It was the ideal fit. With her strong background in babies and medicine, she knew how vital human touch was to brain development and a baby’s future ability to form bonds.
Yet, she never could have prepared herself for how much it would change her understanding of addiction and its effects on society as a whole.
The cycle of addiction — and its long-lasting effects
Once a week, Johnson walks into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and offers the most overlooked victims of opioids something they need just as much as milk: cuddling.
Although she and her fellow volunteers have trained for this explicit purpose, legally, they can’t explicitly state that’s the reason they’re there. “NICU nurses aren’t allowed to say, ‘This baby is going through withdrawal — hold this one,’ even though everyone knows that’s what we’re here for,” Johnson explains. “To obey the law, we have to ask subtly: ‘Are there any babies in particular that need cuddling…?’ And the nurses on duty will tell us who needs to be picked up.”
And it’s no mystery who needs to be held. “Physically, these babies are in such distress — they cry and wail from the pain,” explains Johnson, “What’s especially tragic is that so many of them are entering a world where no one but the volunteers and hospital staff are there to hold them.” Since many of the parents are caught up in their own drug-related problems — many are simply trying to survive, themselves — an overwhelming amount of these babies will ultimately end up in foster homes.
And just because they’re little doesn’t mean their physical pain is any less. Despite their tiny bodies, small infants actually experience the same pain as those suffered by adult users going through withdrawal: cramping, muscle spasms, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and tremors. It’s a rough way to come into the world.
Since the amount of distress the babies experience is sometimes so severe, volunteers are limited to only two hours. “If a baby is having a particularly hard time, they might overstress a volunteer — and a baby will feel that stress, which undoes the help. So we constantly have volunteers in and out every two hours.”
While going through addiction is a horrendous experience for anyone, it’s particularly distressing for infants who need physical touch to survive. Indeed, studies show that human touch isn’t only necessary for brain development, it’s a fundamental need that helps babies to understand themselves and how they relate to other people. How much a baby is touched and responded to will fundamentally affect their future relationships and how they will be able to navigate through society. Indirectly, the level of touch they receive might even affect whether they’ll be able to escape future drug addictions. And while volunteers certainly don’t take the place of a dedicated caregiver like a mother or a father, their role in holding these babies is integral.
“The thing I think about most when holding them is, What will happen when they grow up?” shares Johnson. “As I hold them, I see the immediate effect, but I also see the immense sadness and the cyclical nature of addiction. I often ask myself: What will happen to this baby?”
And “this baby” could be anyone. The opioid crisis doesn’t discriminate — it affects every single segment of the United States. “People think that this only affects the poor or minorities — no, this affects every class and every nationality. Its effects are far-reaching — and far-lasting,” explains Johnson.
Taking care of the tiniest victims of the opioid crisis gives Johnson something more than an understanding of how pervasive the opioid epidemic is: it reveals to her how humanity is so intertwined.
“When you think of the opioid crisis, you think of the user and their struggle. You think of their family. You think of our communities, and children being abandoned to foster care,” Johnson explains. “Yet we often forget the people the most directly affected — and they haven’t even been born.”
And for some, these babies bring real healing. Johnson describes a fellow volunteer whose adult daughter died in an overdose. “She comes twice a week… it’s her way of keeping her daughter close — something she can do as a mother to fight what took her daughter.” Indeed, there is real hope — it just begins with one baby at a time.
Want to hold babies, too? Here’s what you need to know.
It’s not like volunteering at your local soup kitchen. There’s a lot of red tape and procedures you’ll need to adhere to. For one, you’ll need background checks as well as character references. In fact, most hospitals will need character references from particular hospital staff, which means they will require that you volunteer at the hospital for 20 hours or so before they will allow you to get near the NICU and hold the babies.
However, with the opioid epidemic on the rise, the need is more paramount than ever. So if this sounds like it would be a fitting volunteer opportunity for you, please contact the volunteer coordinator at your local hospital, and see what you need to do to get started. The babies will thank you!