Share story

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Lampton Titus does not like his pacifier.

At almost 5 months old, he’s had two surgeries and sometimes stares out the windows from the third floor at Woman’s Hospital. He noticeably perks up when Lisa Binder walks into the room, chatters about how big he’s growing and nestles with him in a rocking chair.

Binder’s title?

The cuddler.

She’s one of 22 people in Baton Rouge with one of the most desired and cutest volunteer positions around. Once a week, Binder reports to Woman’s Hospital in a magenta smock, walks through a set of automatic doors and scrubs her hands over a sink with the intensity of a surgeon. She paces through the 84-bed neonatal intensive care unit, checking on “Lampy,” as they like to call him, and the other babies in the sea creature-themed section of the hospital.

Each baby has his or her own room — twins and triplets share — with a glass window facing the hallway so nurses and doctors can keep an eye on them.

When a baby starts crying or fussing and no parent is around, that’s when Binder comes in. She coos and rocks and sings and plays lullabies for them on a Pandora station. She gives pacifiers, redoes swaddles and gets to know the outsized personality of a baby who might weigh roughly the same as an ostrich egg.

Binder has become especially close to Lampton. She knows he likes the tiger stuffed animal attached to his pacifier more than the pacifier itself. He likes his lime-green palm tree mobile and he enjoys when she plays cartoons for him.

Most of all, though, Lampton loves when Binder holds him. Although many babies in the hospital’s Newborn and Infant Intensive Care Unit were born premature, Lampton was almost full term, but hospital staff said other medical problems have kept him hospitalized.

Kayla Titus, his mother, said Lampton was born with a heart defect and Down syndrome. He’s needed two surgeries in his short life: one on his heart and another to insert a temporary feeding tube.

Titus, who lives in Kentwood and has five other children with her husband Tedd Titus, said the family simply can’t be at the hospital around the clock.

“It makes me so happy that they look forward to cuddling with my little man when I can’t be there,” she said. “I love it. I’ve met several of them and I’ll see them when I’m coming or going. They’re all wonderful.”

Binder said she’s watched Lampton’s improvement while in the hospital. “When he was first born, he didn’t have the energy to move much at all,” Binder said as she stood rocking the baby in her arms on a recent morning. “He’s gotten much, much stronger.”

Lampton squirms and kicks, and eyes cameras and strangers talking to him when Binder sits with him on her lap. She tells him he will be ready to go home soon and that his mom must be proud of how big and brave he’s become.

Woman’s began its cuddler program in 2001, seeing that some hospitals around the nation had them. Babies in the NICU would sometimes cry or seem like they needed attention when medical staff was tied up or working with sicker babies. Parents, too, sometimes had to go to work, spend time with their other children or recover from their own medical problems. Some parents lived out of town and could not visit their babies every day.

Ochsner Medical Center has a similar program called “baby rockers” at its New Orleans hospital.

NICUs in Louisiana are especially important because the state has struggled for years with high premature birthrates.

The state received an F on the March of Dimes’ newly released 2017 premature birth report card. The national nonprofit tracks premature births and infant mortality and Louisiana had a 12.6 percent preterm birthrate, according to the report card.

Though doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and physical therapists work with the babies at Woman’s to get them well enough to send home, the cuddlers primarily look after a baby’s comfort. The premature and sick babies need to expend their energy on getting better and growing — not crying and fussing, Binder said.

“They need interaction, especially the babies that are older,” said Cherie Burns, a registered nurse in the NICU who routinely looks after Lampton.

Some of the most premature babies, like those born at just 25 weeks, are so fragile and wrapped in wires and monitors that the cuddlers cannot even hold them. But when they cry, a pacifier, a massage or even a light pat on the butt often does the trick.

“These little tiny things, you think, how can you be so gentle?” said Binder, a retired nurse and mother of three now-grown children. “They’re like a little piece of glass. But these babies are tough. They’re tougher than you think they are.”

As endearing as the idea of a “baby cuddler” is, the role is also medically helpful, said Laurel Kitto, the director of the NICU at Woman’s. The application process and training are intensive.

The program at Woman’s is fully staffed and is not accepting applications for future openings. Binder is the newest of the cuddler crop and joined the team about a year ago. The Opelousas native has lived in Baton Rouge for 35 years, and her husband is an administrator at the hospital whom she sometimes sees when she reports for her volunteer shift.

Binder applied, submitted references, went through multiple rounds of interviews and had a background check, drug screen, health screen, vaccines and more. She listened through rounds of orientation about volunteering at Woman’s Hospital, then completed online courses about hand washing, privacy rules, palliative care and other issues the cuddlers face. Though she’s a retired nurse, Binder never worked in a NICU and said she’s amazed at the level of care on the third floor at Woman’s.

She shadowed other cuddlers and finally slid into her own volunteer shift many weeks after the process began. She and the others — many of whom are part of the original cuddler group from 16 years ago — take annual “continuing education” classes as well.

Kitto said the human-to-human contact between cuddlers and the babies is good for an infant’s development, as babies in the NICU are rapidly growing and maturing. Human touch affects how they experience their environment.

Some babies — like Lampton — spend months in the intensive care unit before they can go home. His mother said they hope to bring him home by Christmas.

The hospital has walls full of photos and success stories from babies who once only weighed a pound or two and are now graduating from high school. One bulletin board in the NICU has letter upon letter tacked up from families who once had loved ones cared for there.

Though she spends hours with them, Binder usually does not know a baby’s diagnosis. Their rooms have signs with their names, lighting preferences and special instructions about how to pick them up, warning personnel about particularly delicate spots. That’s enough for her, but Binder also said sometimes she can tell what’s bothering babies.

Woman’s has seen a rise in drug-dependent babies as the number of people using opioids grows, and Binder finds those babies are often fussier because they’re in pain.

Binder tries not to overstep her role when a baby’s parents are around. She usually does not go into a baby’s room if the parents are there, and if parents come in when she’s cuddling a baby, she hands them the baby and leaves.

Still, she gets attached and joked that if she could, she would bring them all home. As she rocked Lampton, his eyelids grew heavy and she assured him it was OK to fall asleep.


Information from: The Advocate,