The carers who calm babies born with drug addictions

Rock-a-bye baby: Grandmother Sandra Gilbert is a volunteer carer at Sunshine Hospital’s special care nursery.
Rock-a-bye baby: Grandmother Sandra Gilbert is a volunteer carer at Sunshine Hospital’s special care nursery. Photo: Joe Armao

A grandmother of four, Sandra Gilbert’s ability to settle crying babies has earned her the title of ‘‘baby whisperer’’ among her family. It is a talent she is putting to good use in Victoria's Sunshine Hospital’s special care nursery, as part of a program for volunteers to comfort newborn babies experiencing withdrawal symptoms due to their mothers’ opiate use.

Mrs Gilbert is one of 20 volunteers who are rostered for four-hour blocks in the nursery to provide physical comfort for babies distressed due to their condition.

The babies’ mothers may have used heroin or been prescribed methadone during pregnancy. A total of 21 babies have been part of the ‘‘comfort care’’ program over the past year, and volunteers are currently caring for four babies in the nursery.

Neonatologist Thao Lu said the hospital provided ‘‘multidisciplinary, non-judgmental care’’ to mothers and babies, who could be difficult to manage due to their high needs.

‘‘Imagine a baby who is screaming, really irritable, arching back and not feeding very well,’’ she said. ‘‘These babies are very sensitive to stimulation, so we make sure there is not too much light and noise.

"The comfort carers add to that by cuddling and rocking them.’’

Mrs Gilbert said the babies could be hard work, and nurses in the unit were grateful for some help from an old hand.

‘‘Sometimes a baby can be settled with just a hand on their little chest and the other hand patting,’’ she said. ‘‘When they are really screaming you do pick them up and cuddle them and they relate to it so well, you can feel their little bodies relax.’’

Mrs Gilbert, 70, said she ‘‘took a bit of pride in being able to settle a baby’’. Along with her children and grandchildren, volunteering weekly in the nursery had given her a purpose in life after losing her husband, Ron, to cancer a few years ago.


Anne Robson, who is associate nurse unit manager in the nursery, helped establish the program at Sunshine about a decade ago after reading about similar programs in the US. She said the volunteers had a calming effect on the whole nursery, providing benefits not only for the babies but also staff and other parents, who could become worn down by the sound of a screaming newborn.

Dr Lu said staff provided babies with supportive care, including a calming environment and close monitoring of their feeding, for between one and six weeks to manage withdrawal symptoms.

In severe cases babies were given morphine and steadily weaned off the drug as their symptoms improved.

‘‘The volunteers are doing a wonderful job as part of our team caring for these babies,’’ Dr Lu said. ‘‘I believe they are helping to reduce the amount of medication these babies need.

"Objectively, I can see that babies do better when they have been through the comfort care program.’’