ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CNS) -- It just might be the sweetest, cuddliest volunteer opportunity in the whole state of Alaska.
For 67 volunteers at Providence Hospital in Anchorage, that opportunity is called the "Kuddle Korps." Little training is required. You just have to love very small babies, and have the patience to sit for a couple of hours in a rocking chair holding them quietly.
At the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, Dale Bader is the lead volunteer for the Kuddle Korps, and she also "rocks" during a two-hour weekly shift with the tiny infants.
Bader has rocked for five years and it shows.
Her motherly -- and grandmotherly -- instincts are undeniable as she tenderly but very efficiently tucks a premature infant into her arms.
"When I quit work, I knew I needed something to do. And I knew I wanted to hold babies," said the grandmother of seven. "I called every hospital in town."
The right call went to Providence Hospital where the neonatal intensive care unit is the largest in the state. Every other hospital in Alaska refers newborn babies who are premature or born with complications to Providence.
Nurse Nouha Wallin said they've had babies at Providence as small as a pound or born at only 23 weeks gestation -- a full-term pregnancy being 40 weeks. The busy nurses often can't provide all the touching and holding each baby needs.
That's where the Kuddle Korps comes in.
Pointing to a small blue bundle lying peacefully in the arms of a "rocker," Wallin said, "This little guy was crabby and I was very busy. We hope the Kuddle Korps knows how much we appreciate them."
Parents, of course, are the rockers-in-chief. But when a baby has to spend several weeks, or even months, in intensive care, parents sometimes have to get back to their own routines or work schedules and can't be at the hospital day and night. This is especially true for parents from out of town who may have to travel back and forth to see their infants.
In these cases, the Kuddle Korps fills in. There are college men who are "rockers" -- the minimum age is 16 -- and there is even a regular volunteer who is 99. To volunteer, you must pass a security screening and then go through Providence Hospital's volunteer training plus Bader's introduction to the program and the neonatal intensive care unit.
After three months on the job, volunteers go through a more intensive training, including information from an occupational therapist on infant development.
The neonatal intensive care unit is a hushed place, with plenty of nurses quietly making their rounds from bassinet to bassinet. Soft lighting dims in the evenings to accommodate the body's natural rhythm. Some babies are on oxygen, some just recovering from surgery. Tiny twins lay side by side with eyes wide open. The entryway is full of grateful letters from parents and lots of pictures of smiling, healthy "alums."
Dr. Lily Lou, medical director of the unit, is unequivocal in her praise of the Kuddle Korps.
"For any baby that can't be home with their families, it's a lifesaver," the doctor said.
Occupational therapist Carol Matthews agrees.
"There's a huge difference in the way babies act and look when they're regularly touched and held," she said, adding that studies show that being touched is necessary for the proper development and even survival of infants.