A new initiative at Victoria General Hospital will help ensure babies get the hugs they need to thrive, even if parents aren’t able to be at their newborn’s side.

Specially trained volunteers will cuddle, rock and sing to babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

The Huggies No Baby Unhugged program was launched on Wednesday.

The health authority says vulnerable babies who participate in the program can experience benefits such as stabilized heart rates and body temperature, faster weight gain, improved oxygen levels and better tolerance to pain.

A pediatric intensive care doctor at VGH says up to 400 of the sickest kids on Vancouver Island are in the PICU.

“Babies are often arriving from around the island with parents who are exhausted, they’ve been up for sometimes days, they’re tired and they need to look after themselves,” said Dr. Jeff Bishop. “Having the volunteers able to come in, provide physical contact and love to babies makes everybody’s job easier.”

Cindy Dent’s son Gabriel has been in intensive care with a rare neuromuscular disease for the past 11 months. She says the program ensures she can get a little bit of rest when needed.

“It’s just going for lunch or getting some groceries, it makes me feel bad leaving Gabe here so having a volunteer that’s really good with him means a lot […] I know he’s safe and having a good time,” Dent said.

Kyla Uzzell is a hospital volunteer who hugs and plays with Gabriel when his parents can’t be there. 

Uzzell says she feels very lucky to be a part of the program.

“I think it’s really important just for someone to be with him […] even just looking at him,” Uzzell said. “He smiles lots which is really great to see.”

Island Health says volunteers will be available and on call whenever a neonatal or pediatric intensive care infant would benefit from the hugging initiative.

The national program, which is led by Huggies, has been facilitated in two other Canadian hospitals to date and is the first in British Columbia.

To learn more about Island Health’s baby hugging program visit nobabyunhugged.ca.