Anne Corliss loves babies — so much, that somehow, quietly and without her noticing, she spent 25 years cradling them in her arms at a Bangor hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

She is considered a master cuddler.

Corliss, 66, is one of 18 volunteers involved in the Carter’s Quiet Care Cuddlers program, which tends to the hospital’s tiniest patients when parents aren’t around. She began volunteering at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center’s pediatric unit in 1990 and moved to the NICU when the cuddlers program began in 1998.

Cuddling offers comfort during crying or other distress, provides stimulation and promotes weight gain in babies, among other benefits, according to the hospital. Corliss, who has been around the longest of the cuddlers, considers it a privilege to hold a child.

“When you find something that you love, you don’t realize that 25 years have gone by,” she said as she weaved through the halls of the hospital last week. “You don’t see it as a chore.”

Corliss, one of four nominees for the annual Larry Malone Luminary Award that honors a dedicated volunteer, has given her time because it helps the infants with their development and also satisfies something in her. She is moved by the notion that something so simple — holding a baby in her arms or against her chest — can have such a profound effect, she said.

Volunteers involved in the Carter’s Quiet Care Cuddlers program leave notes for parents each time their baby is held. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The cuddlers program is EMMC’s most popular among volunteers and even has a waiting list, though a spokesperson said the hospital is not actively seeking more people. It has made such a difference over the years that coordinators are developing a version for the PICU, or pediatric intensive care unit, that would benefit children 1 year old and under, said Richard Larrabee, a certified nursing assistant who has led the program since 2008.

Similar to the skin-to-skin contact between a mother or father and their newborn, which reduces stress and regulates their temperature, among other benefits, cuddling is about human touch and all its magic, Corliss said.

Corliss, who has nine nephews and six great-nieces and nephews but no children of her own, talks to the babies, asking how their day is going, or telling them about hers.

Cuddlers leave a note for parents after their time with an infant, telling how they behaved or reassuring them that the little one was paid attention to outside of feedings and diaper changes. They also read and sing to them, and even put together a book of lullabies for families to take home.

“They hear your heart beating. They’re warm because they’re next to you. And it doesn’t matter what you say when you talk to them. It’s the sound of your voice that’s soothing,” she said.

There are 29 rooms in the NICU, and a total of 36 beds. EMMC has 110 active volunteers and hopes to see a roster of 140 by the end of the year.

Anne Corliss, a Carter’s Quiet Care Cuddlers program volunteer, holds 15-day-old Rowan in the neonatal intensive care unit at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center last week. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Babies stay in the NICU for a variety of reasons. In some cases, they’re born prematurely and need special care until their organ systems can work on their own. Some experience cardiac issues, respiratory distress, glucose intolerance or birth defects like gastroschisis, where a hole in the baby’s abdominal wall beside the belly button allows their intestines to extend outside the body, Larrabee said.

The pre-term birth rate in Maine is 9.4 percent, while the national rate is 10.5 percent, according to the 2022 March of Dimes Report Card for Maine, which also tracks rates by county. A birth is considered pre-term when a baby is born at or before 37 weeks of gestation.

Depending on a baby’s condition and needs, nurses instruct cuddlers to hold them a particular way, Corliss said. Sometimes they can be rocked to sleep, while other times the cuddler should remain still because they shouldn’t be overstimulated, she said.

Cuddlers go through a rigorous process involving screenings, an interview and training before they can work in the NICU. They typically dedicate one day a week to the NICU, spending four hours cuddling and sometimes stocking rooms, though Corliss has stuck to two-hour shifts.

Though she finds joy in the work, it hasn’t always been easy. Corliss, who also works as a credentialing specialist in the hospital’s medical staff office, has held babies moments before they were transported via LifeFlight for surgery and those not expected to survive.

The first time Corliss held an infant experiencing drug withdrawal, she thought tremors were a sign that the child was cold and wrapped them in a blanket. She later learned this was a symptom of neonatal abstinence syndrome, and babies exposed to drugs in the womb can exhibit trouble sleeping, seizures and other indications.

Anne Corliss, 66, has volunteered as a cuddler in the neonatal intensive care unit at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center for 25 years. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

People ask how Corliss is able to hold such fragile patients, especially when wires and tubes connect them to beeping monitors.

But it doesn’t scare her because she sees the incubators and other technology as keeping track of the child’s health. She is “forever in awe” of the medical staff working in the NICU, and knows they would respond immediately if something were wrong, she said.

In her years observing nurses, Corliss noticed that changing a baby’s bedding could be complicated, especially while holding the child. She has sewn hundreds of cotton flannel covers, which she calls “cozy kid cuddler covers,” for bassinets and incubators to ease the process.

“This is just something that I believe in,” she said. “I could have a horrible day, but after I’ve been up there for a few hours, life is good.”