Volunteer cuddlers at Florida hospital help spur infant development

A program at a north Florida hospital pairs volunteers with newborns to give them love.

The babies are in the neonatal intensive care unit at UF Health Jacksonville and sometimes their parents can't be with them.

UF Health Jacksonville is one of Northeast Florida’s biggest and busiest hospitals, but tucked away inside, there's a quiet place with tiny beating hearts and tiny hands just waiting to be held.

You could call volunteer Lavonne Mitchell a professional cuddler.

“I retired in 2010 from government and I had heard about them needing someone to rock and cradle the babies, just give them some TLC,” Mitchell said.

And that's exactly what she does once a week for four hours.

They may be only days old, but some of these babies have already faced major challenges.

“Some are here because their parents may be incarcerated and so they need someone. They need that voice, they need that touch,” Mitchell said.

Some are premature, waiting for adoption. Many are addicted to drugs.

Rana Alissa, medical director of the newborn nursery, said cradling the babies goes beyond just comfort. The human touch helps release a hormone called oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone.

“They feed better, they can maintain their temperatures better, they can maintain their blood glucose better,” Alissa said.

And holding them is not only important and good for the baby, but Mitchell said it is also good for her. She calls it a win-win.

“It's a great feeling inside. I feel very rewarded to know I could lend a hand to somebody in need,” Mitchell said.

It has become a labor of love for her. Who knew a simple touch when it comes from the heart can make a difference?