The neonatal intensive care unit is one of the most difficult wards to walk into at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Three rooms on the ninth floor filled with tiny babies, born prematurely or just too sick to leave the hospital, many connected to machines for days or even months. But, Danielle Tousignant comes with open arms, ready to fill them. She is one of the unit’s volunteer cuddlers. “I love babies, and I’ve always thought, one of these days I will be doing this.”

Before joining the volunteer program at the Children’s, Danielle worked as an administrative assistant in the medical clinic at Air Canada. When she retired eight years ago, she applied as a volunteer at the hospital. Because of her medical clinic experience, Danielle was placed in the neonatal unit right away. She was exactly where she wanted to be and ever since, Danielle has been coming here once a week, to volunteer for a three hour snuggle shift. “Sometimes I come for one baby in those three hours and sometimes I will take four or five babies. It all depends.”

On this day, her attention is on little Nadia. Only a day after she was born, Nadia stopped breathing. Barely a week later doctors say she is doing much better, but there is still no word on when she can go home. Her parents are exhausted and with another two-year old at home, they are unable to be at the hospital as often as they would like.

Nurse Amanda Camacho says that’s a dilemma they share with many parents with children in the hospital. “We have a lot of parents who are caught between living far away or having other young children at home and having one child here, so they’re quite torn a lot of the time,” she says. “It is very difficult for them.”

Danielle is happy to step in for them, for one simple reason. “It just makes me feel good” she says. “I leave here feeling good. That’s why I come back.” Nurse Camacho says not only do the volunteers help the parents, but also the staff. “Volunteers provide a really important service for us you know. As a nurse, we can’t always be there holding the babies all the time, so the volunteers are able to give the babies really important comfort and care.”

While there may not be any medicinal benefit to the cuddle sessions, there is a therapeutic one. “In terms of proper development, it definitely helps stimulate the babies,” says Camacho. “To have human touch, to just be stimulated in normal ways, talked to, looked at, played with, read to, are all very important things for our babies development.” And Danielle is a natural at it. Despite all the noisy equipment and steady flow of staff coming through the unit, Nadia has nodded off. “Somehow, I don’t know what it is, but when there’s a fussy baby they will come and get me, and say we need you” says Danielle, “and I take the baby and rock the baby and it doesn’t take more than five minutes, and I manage to get them to sleep.”

Right on cue Nadia’s Dad has arrived, grateful his baby has been in caring arms while he couldn’t be here. “This is what helped us over the last week, which was a really difficult week, but without the people here this would have been much more difficult for us,” says Hesham Abdelsamie.

Danielle gently hands over the small bundle she’s been snuggling for the last hour. “As soon as the parents come, I don’t really stick around too long, because when they do come, that’s when they want to pick up the baby, and so I just give the baby away and disappear.”
Danielle’s work is done here; time to embrace the next cuddle. “This little one is asleep so I’ll go shop for somebody else.”

Debra Arbec co-anchors CBC News Montreal with Andrew Chang weekdays from 5 – 6:30 pm. Watch for her “Montrealer of the Week” segment Fridays during the 6pm newscast. To see past profiles, visit: