Baby rockers offer comfort to NICU babies

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The Avera McKennan NICU admits upwards of 425 babies each year – 70 to 90 are transported from hospitals outside of Sioux Falls, making volunteers an integral part of the NICU.

They’re called ‘baby rockers.’ They are volunteers who step in when parents aren’t able to be at the NICU because they are working, caring for other children or live too far away. They give babies that needed human touch that helps them heal.

“Hi there darling. How are you today?” asked Judy Ashton.

Her soft touch soothes. Her gentles voice calms.

“Just a beautiful baby. Yes you are,” said Ashton

Ashton has been rocking babies in the Avera McKennan NICU just shy of a decade.

“I know I’ve rocked over a thousand hours. The reason I wanted to start baby rocking was when my daughter was born many years ago, I had some severe medical complications and I wasn’t able to hold her for over nine years. Usually when I first get here and I start holding the baby, I’ll pray for them. I’ll pray that God will finish knitting them together and making them whole and healthy and for their families and that they’ll be a real blessing to their families. All we do is cuddle and give love to them and rock them,” said Ashton.

“Having them here, and really kind of any hour, odd hours of the day is always helpful. It’s an overwhelming sense of relief for a lot of parents that can’t be here. I know that they’ve just thoroughly enjoyed having volunteers to be here and hold their babies when they can so it’s kind of like having grandma and grandpa here,” said Angela Riley, NICU Nurse Manager.

“It’s exciting to see her grow,” said Ashton.

“I think right now we have about 25 NICU Rock-A-Baby with, I’ve been told, pages of people that are waiting to get in,” said Riley.

Riley says cuddling is often the best medicine for NICU babies.

“Your tummy’s full and now you’re going to sleep,” Ashton whispered.

“We really promote, even for families, but as a baby’s being fed, we really want to put that human touch along with it just to help build the positive of a feeding,” said Riley.

“Arya came at 25 weeks and four days. My water broke at 17 weeks. So she’s a miracle baby,” said Kayla Konrady.

Konrady is from Spencer, Iowa and is mom to baby Arya.

“It’s a grandma or grandpa that gets to snuggle and it helps the baby to heal. And while they’re feeding, that helps them if they can be held too which is kind of our roller coaster right now is with feeding. So if she can be held while she’s feeding, it’s a positive thing for her,” said Konrady.

“It’s a privilege. It really is a privilege to be able to snuggle these babies and talk to them and give some love to them,” said Ashton.

Ashton takes her role very seriously and treats the babies as if they were part of her own family. And no surprise here – she was named the Avera McKennan volunteer of the month for September.