The babies, born prematurely, can't go home with their parents immediately after birth. For the past 10 years, volunteer "cuddlers" have been making them feel loved and nurtured until they've grown and developed enough to go home with their parents.

Every few seconds an alarm sounds in the neonatal intensive care unit at Rogue Valley Medical Center, signaling that a tiny baby needs medical attention.

Infants squall inside their clear plastic bassinets. On the wall there's a colorful collage of people holding babies and a sign that proclaims "What babies need to grow is the sunshine of a cuddler's love."

NICU babies, born prematurely, can't go home with their parents immediately after birth. For the past 10 years, volunteer "cuddlers" have been making them feel loved and nurtured until they've grown and developed enough to go home with their parents.

The program begins its second decade with nearly four dozen volunteers, many of whom have watched their grandchildren grow to young adulthood. At the age of 75, Madeleine Brenenstall of Medford appreciates her role as a surrogate grandma — her youngest grandchild is 17; the others are adults.

"They're too big to cuddle," she said as she held little Danika Giron.

Brenenstall has been coming to RVMC two days a week for three years to sit quietly and rock babies, and she plans to keep doing it as long as she's able. She said she loves to see them grow and develop.

Gunther Baldauf, 84, chairman of the program, started holding infants when he lived in California and became an RVMC cuddler nine years ago. Baldauf said babies have a need to be touched, cuddled and held in order to thrive, and he likes being involved in each baby's development.

"A mother came in and thanked me for holding her little one. And that feels good," he said.

Parents like 21-year-old Lindsey Lanning generally appreciate the extra nurturing hands that cuddlers provide. Lanning's twin boys, Ayden and Connor, have been in the NICU for a month. Her husband is in Crescent City, so she often gives one of her sons to a cuddler while she's feeding the other.

Lanning says her protective instincts sometimes kick in when a cuddler holds her child, so she likes to be present if a cuddler is holding one of her boys. But she's become more comfortable with the arrangement as she's come to know the cuddlers.

"It's better than leaving them by themselves," she said.

Not all parents share that belief, said Barbera Herzog Taft, a neonatal nurse practitioner, and RVMC honors the wishes of parents who decline to use cuddlers.

"There are some parents who make every effort to be there when their baby is awake," she said. "Those parents prefer to be the sole source of comfort to their babies."

Baldauf said the parents always get first priority for holding their children. On some days the cuddlers have no one to hold, but he said they've learned to take the disappointment in stride.

If all the babies have a parent to hold them, Baldauf sometimes checks with the pediatric department to see if there are little ones who need a little attention.

Even four- or five-year-olds get to be cuddled, he said.

"One time, there was a little girl who had me pulling her around and around in a wagon," he said.

Baldauf said he's glad to do spend time with the children, but at 84, the little ones can wear him out.

Herzog Taft said anyone who loves babies can be a cuddler. All applicants are carefully screened before they are admitted to the program, but she said it's not for everyone.

"Many want to become cuddlers, but they have no idea what's involved," she said.

The role is limited. Cuddlers simply provide comfort for infants. Feeding, diapering and all medical care is left to the doctors and nurses.

Herzog Taft said the nurses try to take cues from the babies before holding them or giving them to cuddlers because most of the babies in the NICU are underweight, premature or ill. When babies are especially sick, touch can be aggravating. The nurses work hard to maintain the right amount of touch for sensitive babies.

When the program started, nurses were uneasy about letting cuddlers handle premature babies, but over the past 10 years they've come to rely on the extra sets of hands.

If a baby is crying, Herzog Taft said it's not uncommon to hear a nurse say "Has anyone seen a cuddler? Is there a cuddler coming today?"

Nurse Carole Arnold said she likes seeing how the cuddlers calm down the restless babies.

"The cuddlers really fill a void," Arnold said. "They can hold babies who are crying or need to be held, and we can be available to save lives."

Megan Shreeve is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail her at shreevem@students.sou.edu.