Inside the NICU: Shining light on the healing power of touch

Baby girl in NICU with mother
Abigail underwent open-heart surgery and received care in Boston Children’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit

Traveling through Boston Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), you feel the warmth of natural light and a soothing sense of calm.

One mom, leaning delicately over her son’s bedside, caresses his forehead and gently whispers a lullaby. Only a few steps away, a father rests in a chair with his tiny son on his chest. Lifesaving technology fills the 24-bed NICU and a reassuring team of specialized physicians, nurses and Child Life Specialists monitor, treat and embrace their delicate patients.

Nearly 15 million babies, about 1 in 10, are born prematurely each year and in many cases, require complex medical and surgical care. Equally critical to preemie and newborn health is the healing power of touch, experts say.

“We encourage families and our own staff to offer gentle touch and physical affection as part of our approach to managing pain and agitation, and promote healthy development,” says Boston Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Medical Director, Dr. Anne Hansen.

There are several forms of therapeutic touch including skin-to-skin contact (also known as kangarooing), the “hand hug” where you place a hand on a child’s head and feet or simply apply gentle pressure on a child’s body. These techniques help regulate breathing and body temperature, create a sense of security and promote motor skills, communication, visual stimulation, auditory stimulation and socialization. 

In recognition of World Prematurity Day, Thriving is honoring our smallest patients and their families and shining light on the benefits and healing power of touch.

A mother’s touch

Christian was born in New York at 26 weeks gestation and weighing just over one pound. Diagnosed with bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a condition also known as chronic lung disease, Christian, now five months old, is on a ventilator and awaiting a lung transplant.

Jessica is by her son’s side everyday.

“It is very important for me to hold him because I wasn’t able to hold him for about a month after he was born,” she says. “He loves when I hold his hand and rub his head. I talk to him, whisper in his ear and tell him that I love him.”

Baby boy in NICU with mother
Jessica and Christian

The healing power of touch also goes beyond mother and son, she says.

“The nurses and doctors inside the NICU are fantastic. They talk to you, hug you and cry with you,” Jessica says. “I thank them everyday because if it wasn’t for them, Christian wouldn’t be here today.”

Sibling love

Having a sibling in the NICU can be a difficult time for children because their new baby brother or sister may be very small and surrounded by unknown medical equipment. But with proper planning and coaching by NICU staff, siblings can be incorporated into the healing process.

Brothers in NICU
Christian and Maurice, Jr.

“My older son, Maurice, Jr., is very loving to his little brother,” Jessica says. “He loves to shower Christian with kisses and always says a prayer for Christian because he wants him to feel better so they can play.”

Blending medicine and a healing touch

Jamel was born several weeks prematurely and underwent urgent heart, bowel and airway surgeries. His mother Ashlee is by her son’s side daily and leans on NICU physicians, nurses and staff for support.

Dr. Ivana Culic, a NICU neonatologist, says improving the health of babies while supporting the whole family — parents and other family members — is always the primary goal.

Doctor with mother and baby in NICU
Ashlee and Dr. Ivana Culic

“Gentle touch is an extra connection with the baby and it gives us the opportunity to calm and soothe,” says Culic. “We also experience the power of touch when talking to parents through hand-holding or a hug. These are powerful ways of showing support.”

The benefits of skin-to-skin touch

Jace was born at 25 weeks weighing 1 pound 12 ounces. Throughout his 136-day stay in the NICU, the tiny fighter battled several conditions and underwent two lifesaving surgeries.

Jace’s father, Jamie remembers the day he held his son for the first time. Jace was four days old.

“I was very anxious, scared, concerned and overjoyed all in one moment,” Jamie recalls. “But shortly after Jace was on my chest I was immediately at ease.”

Father and baby son in NICU
Jace and Jamie

Jace’s mother Melyssa, remembers spending countless hours in the NICU, holding her fragile baby in her arms. “Every time I got to hold him was amazing. It was just me and my little miracle.”

Melyssa and Jamie say they are forever grateful for the loving care Jace, now 4, received in the NICU. “My son is here because of every single person — physicians, nurses and medical staff — that came into his path. They made it possible for him to have this life,” Melyssa adds.

Being present and being beside

A NICU baby has a nurse bedside 24 hours a day. Larissa Demers, RN, one of a mighty team of caregivers, monitors vitals, administers medications and nutrients, and provides care and comfort to newborns. “NICU nurses help care for babies in their most fragile state; we help them thrive and grow,” she says.

Nurse with baby in NICU

When it comes to the power of touch, Larissa says it is an important part of her day.

“Bedside nurses show families how to hold their babies and become independent in caring for them,” she says. “And some of the best gifts are seeing parents smile after being able to hold their baby for the first time.”

Empower, nurture, educate

Infants need special care in the NICU. Child Life Specialist Darlene Salvatore, one of many caring faces found in the NICU, provides developmentally appropriate care plans for the babies and educates families on the far-reaching benefits of loving touch.

Darlene says being a Child Life Specialist is her “dream job” because she is able to care for her tiny patients and educate and provide support to their families.

“The ability to work with families during intimate moments allows me the opportunity to observe the love and joy they share as a family,” Darlene says. “This is not only a privilege but an honor.”

NICU-Child Life


Learn more about Boston Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and the Newborn Individualized Developmental Care and Assessment Program (NIDCAP).