No Matter What

Amanda Hignell and Dina McGovern

Amanda Hignell

NICU social worker

Dina McGovern


The way Amanda Hignell sees it, there’s no better place to be a social worker than in St. Michael’s NICU.

Her clients come to her at one of the most vulnerable moments of their often troubled lives. They are mothers who have just given birth to premature, sick babies. They may be living on the street. They could be struggling with addiction or mental illness.

But a new, little life can be a powerful catalyst for change.

“I get to see these women at a time when they are very motivated to make things better for themselves and their child,” says Amanda. “I really, really love my job.”

She helps them find housing, resources and the support they need to deal with their problems. Even mothers who are healthy and well off benefit from Amanda’s nearly 20 years of experience as they strain to give their babies the best of themselves.

Amanda is particularly pleased to see her baby cuddling program work its magic on sick newborns. Together with nurse practitioner Karen Carlyle, she launched the program in 2015 after research showed health improvements in infants who were held.

St. Michael’s was one of the first hospitals in Canada to create a cuddling program and today, Amanda finds herself fielding calls from hospitals across the country asking for advice and copies of the program manual.

She recently wrapped up a study showing that babies recovering from opioid addiction saw their hospital stays drop to an average of 24 days from 31 after the cuddling program was introduced.

St. Michael’s now has 25 carefully selected volunteer cuddlers who step in when a baby’s parents can’t be present. They’ve all been specially trained in the best techniques for soothing otherwise inconsolable infants.

Dina McGovern, a cuddler since day one, volunteered even before the program was launched. St. Michael’s first full-time lactation consultant and an experienced critical care and obstetrics nurse, Dina was on the verge of retirement when she asked if she could help.

“I didn’t want to let go of the babies,” she says. “It’s a special feeling when you hold a baby. It’s a connection.”

Dina, like the rest of St. Michael’s cuddlers, is especially good at connecting with even the most distraught babies.

One in particular will always stand out for her – a tiny baby boy, born dependent on opioids. His screams of pain pulled at the staff’s heartstrings for weeks. But when Dina held him and jiggled him just right, he would fall into a deep, calm sleep.

Amanda also vividly remembers that baby boy: “His dad came in at one point and joked, ‘Is my son still here? I don’t hear screaming.’” Heartened by the lack of crying, he carefully studied Dina’s technique to make it his own.

“They were first-time parents and they really appreciated the chance to learn from the nurses and cuddlers,” says Dina.

But, as Dina hastens to add, it’s not a one-way street – the babies give her so much in return.

“This has helped me bridge the gap between being a health professional to being retired,” she says. “Now it’s just part of my life and my kids know they can’t have me as a babysitter on my volunteer days.”


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