DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) –  While the opioid epidemic grips Ohio, one Dayton hospital here is making sure the youngest victims are in good hands.

Each year the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Miami Valley Hospital sees an average of 90 babies born addicted to opioids and experiencing the painful symptoms of withdrawal called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS.

Dr. Amanda Graf says NAS symptoms can include things like irritability, fussiness and trouble sleeping or the withdrawal can be more severe, with infants vomiting, having difficulty feeding or suffering from tremors.

A mother of a premature baby herself, Dr. Graf said it troubles her to see some of the tiniest infants suffering.

“I never want to see a baby suffer unnecessarily,” Dr. Graf says. “And if there are things we can be doing and programs we can build to help, then we’re going to do it.”

The growing number of infants born with NAS sparked the hospital to launch a volunteer infant cuddler program. Dr. Graf said similar programs around the country have produced results and the staff and Miami Valley has its own anecdotal evidence.

“If you talk to any of our staff members that take care of these babies, and even the family members, they will tell you that their babies do better when they are held,” Dr. Graf said.

Friday, one of the programs first volunteers tested what she learned through an extensive orientation. Laurie Mays said she originally signed up to volunteer with Miami Valley’s NICU to get her baby fix and when she was asked to join the new cuddling program, she didn’t hesitate to help.

Mays said, “My children are grown and out of the house and I miss that nurturing you have with babies. And I felt, with this program specifically, if I can help another mom when she’s not able to be here and cuddle her baby, then I would love to do that and be of assistance to her.”

In addition to the medication babies receive to alleviate NAS, volunteers provide emotional and physical support by holding, rocking and quietly interacting with the infants. The cuddlers help fill the gap for infants when a parent or nurse is not available.

Mays said she feels like the program could make a noticeable impact in the region.

“If you can give just a couple of hours a week or a day to volunteer and help out, it’s going to make a difference in the Miami Valley with these moms and babies and hopefully decrease the babies’ struggle,” she said.

Here is the criteria from Miami Valley Hospital for interested volunteers:

Volunteer candidates must exhibit kindness, a non-judgmental nature and a sensitivity to the issue of drug abuse. After two rounds of interviews, selected individuals are required to complete a background check, test negative for tuberculosis and meet all requirements for volunteers at Miami Valley Hospital. Classroom training is also required, as well as hands-on training under the supervision of a nurse. Supervision continues until all the cuddler’s duties are satisfactorily performed and understood.

For more information on the program, or to apply for a volunteer position, contact Miami Valley Hospital’s Volunteer Services at (937) 208-2879.