and so much more
Nine months to prepare for a baby’s arrival is not a long time. Forty weeks, actually. That’s closer to ten months. Ten months to grow a human, set up their nursery, buy all the clothes and bibs (and bobs) and choose a name. Ten months to prepare yourself emotionally and mentally for the change, and prepare your other children, if this is not your first.
But what if you didn’t even have ten months? Sometimes babies decide they’re ready to come out and meet the world, even if they’re not physically up to the task. Sometimes for an early arrival, medical intervention is their only hope for a chance at life.
For these babies, the John Hunter Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, will often be their first home. For the parents this means long days at the hospital, followed by longer nights at home without their baby, then back again early in the morning for another long day. Waiting, visits with specialists, nurse visits, more waiting. Life outside the Unit doesn’t stand still. There might be siblings who also want mum and dad, who need attention and cuddles and reassurance. For those who come to the NICU, one of the largest in NSW and servicing the Hunter New England, Far North Coast and Central Coast regions of NSW, the support of family and friends may be several hours away.
The John Hunter Children’s Hospital NICU Baby Buddies Program was set up for these families. It is a group of 21 volunteers who provide support, both practically and emotionally, to families in the NICU, as well as support and assistance to nursing staff. The volunteers work a roster, covering six days a week. Each Baby Buddy receives training and is supported by the Nurse Unit Manager and a volunteer coordinator.
The program commenced in 2016 and Robyn Waters and Cathy Hunt have been Baby Buddies from the start.
Long-time friends and retirees from the Port Stephens area, Robyn and Cathy make the trip down to the hospital together once a fortnight to give their time to the NICU.
Their shift starts by inspecting the Ronald McDonald Family Room, which is part of the NICU and includes a play area for older siblings visiting their new baby brother or sister. The Baby Buddies do a quick check of the room and clean any toys that have been used so it’s ready for another day.
Robyn explains that the volunteers do the ‘trolley round’, which means helping staff gather all the equipment and supplies they need to take care of the babies that day.
“We take the trolley of stock and visit each bed bay. It means we can provide nurses with all the things they need, so they don’t have to leave the bay and go to the storeroom,” Robyn says.
“It’s also a way for us to interact with everyone. We have a really good rapport with the nurses,” adds Cathy.
The volunteers welcome all new families to the unit and it’s this part of the job that Cathy says requires people skills. “To be a Baby Buddy, you need to be able to chat, have empathy and be able to handle difficult situations,” she says. “Sometimes we just walk into a room and say hello to mum and she’ll burst into tears. You have to be able to talk to people.”
They also present each family with a welcome gift, which includes a story book in a handmade bag, along with a donated item such as a quilt or blanket, bonnet and booties. With a smile, but also a tear in her eye, Robyn adds that one of the most rewarding parts of being a Baby Buddy is seeing the reaction of the parents.
“They’re so grateful for the littlest thing you do for them, like offering them a coffee - they’re just so appreciative. Or just talking to them, because some of the people that are here haven’t got family nearby. We can be another friendly face,” Robyn explains.
“You also have to get along with children,” adds Cathy. “Baby Buddies spend time with siblings so that parents can have quality time with their baby or have important talks with specialists. Parents can have peace of mind knowing that their children are being well taken care of.”
So far, the Baby Buddies team has looked after 168 siblings of babies in NICU, to allow their parents uninterrupted time to focus on their baby.
And then of course, there are the babies. The goal of being a Baby Buddy is to support parents and families so they can bond with their newborn in a safe and nurturing environment. So cuddling the babies is only a very small part of volunteering.
“We don’t get a lot of cuddles with the babies, as the parents are here and it is important that they have as much time with their baby as possible. Sometimes babies are here without family for a time. With the parents’ permission, the nurses encourage cuddles because babies thrive with positive human touch,” Cathy explains.
Undeniably, babies will receive first-class care at the NICU, giving them the best possible outcome. With their passion and commitment to helping these families, Baby Buddies add to the experience in ways that cannot be measured.
As she talks, Robyn is busy threading a string of beads. A new string is started for each baby during their first week in the Unit and beads are added during the family’s time in the NICU.
“Each bead represents a procedure that the baby has had. Every time they have a procedure we add a bead that corresponds to that procedure. The parents really love it. One mum just collected hers today and she said she is going to hang it in the nursery so she can look at it as a reminder of their journey. They get a list so they can remember what each bead represents,” Robyn explains.
“When you first meet the babies they’re very sick, but then they grow bigger and get stronger. Seeing the progress for them and their parents is rewarding. We see a lot of the good side and spend time with these parents who are just amazing. That’s why those beads are important. When they finally get home they can look at it and think, ‘My goodness, how did we get through all that?’.”
Cathy humbly adds that volunteering is not hard work. But for the families who have a baby in NICU, these volunteers are invaluable. Their support only enhances the wonderful work that is performed in NICU every day.