BEST JOB EVER: MAUREEN NYILIS, A "VOLUNTEER CUDDLER," holds five-day-old Adio in the neonatal intensive care unit At St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany. (Emily Benson photos)
BEST JOB EVER: MAUREEN NYILIS, A "VOLUNTEER CUDDLER," holds five-day-old Adio in the neonatal intensive care unit At St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany. (Emily Benson photos)
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At St. Peter's Hospital in Albany, in the neonatal intensive care unit, Maureen Nyilis cradles five-day-old Adio snugly in her arms.

The two sit in a cushioned chair next to Adio's NICU incubator. Mrs. Nyilis' thumb slowly rubs Adio's body in a circular motion, his black cap of hair peeking over her crooked elbow. Her voice is gentle, almost hypnotic, murmuring sweet words of comfort.

The newborn's eyes struggle to stay open as he inches closer and closer to sleep.

"You are so beautiful," Mrs. Nyilis whispers, smiling at the baby. "You are so beautiful."

Mrs. Nyilis didn't know Adio until just a few minutes ago. A parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Delmar, she knows none of the babies in St. Peter's NICU personally.

But, every Tuesday afternoon, she travels to St. Peter's to serve as a volunteer "cuddler" for some of the hospital's tiniest patients.

"We sit in a very comfortable chair, usually in a darkened room, and we cuddle the babies," Mrs. Nyilis explained.

Human touch
The program started at St. Peter's in 2012 as a way for babies in the NICU to receive human contact during times when their parents may not be present. According to a study published in Pediatrics -- the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics -- early skin-to-skin contact with babies can lead to improved neurodevelopment, higher IQ and lower rates of aggression.

MaryBeth Dickinson, a registered nurse in the St. Peter's NICU, summed it up: "A baby needs to be held. Nurses don't have the time to sing and hold a baby [as] it needs."

Mrs. Nyilis, who also volunteers at the hospital's information desk, started volunteering for the cuddling program last fall. She'd heard about the program while working one of her shifts.

A mother of five and grandmother of eight, Mrs. Nyilis said that, since everyone in her family has grown up, she and her husband, John, enjoy traveling. The two just returned from a trip to Portugal and Spain. She also enjoys swimming and reading.

Still, with all her pastimes, Mrs. Nyilis misses having babies in the family to cuddle. Volunteering for the NICU program is "a great feeling," she said. "You can just feel their body relax, and then you relax. It's very comfy and very cozy."

Hours of snuggles
Mrs. Nyilis arrives every Tuesday at 1 p.m. There may be one baby who needs cuddling, or none at all; it depends on whether any infants are awake or healthy enough to be held. The NICU has 14 incubators with chairs placed around them.

At times, the soft-spoken grandmother spends up to two hours holding babies. Each time she visits, she tends to cuddle new little patients as infants cycle through their time in the NICU. Just once, she got to hold the same newborn boy two weeks in a row and noticed he'd grown in that time.

Every volunteer for the cuddling program must pass a medical clearance and complete training on hospital protocol, such as washing hands before holding the babies, always wearing a medical gown and not coming in if one is sick.

Mrs. Nyilis understands the complex feelings parents experience when their child is in the NICU. Her firstborn son was placed in the unit for six weeks. At that time, hospital protocol did not allow her to hold her son until he was released.

"It was very difficult," she said, remembering watching her baby through the NICU window as a nurse cuddled and rocked him, but not being allowed to do so herself. "When he came home, he probably thought, 'Well, gee whiz, where is that [nurse]?'"

Her time volunteering, she said, is "a little payback" to soothe the memory of that experience. Mostly, though, it's a chance to snuggle babies.

"It's a very small thing, but it has great effects," she said. "I love these little babies."

For families
The volunteer cuddlers also give mothers in the NICU a break if they need to get some rest, run errands or go to work. Datanya Murray, Adio's mother, said she found the program helpful for her family. "If you're tired and need a break, it's good for parents who can't be down here," she said.

The program has become so popular that there is a waiting list of people interested in volunteering. They're encouraged to volunteer in other roles at St. Peter's until a "cuddler" opening becomes available.

"It's just so loving, is what it is," said Mrs. Nyilis. "It's a very exciting thing to do. I feel like it's a real privilege."

(For information on all volunteer opportunities, contact St. Peter's Hospital volunteer office at 518-525-1515 or visit www.sphcs.org.)