A number of hospitals across the country, including a few in the Washington area, have volunteer "cuddlers."

Carefully selected and trained volunteers -- also sometimes known as "foster grandparents" -- spend an hour or more each week in intensive-care nurseries, rocking, stroking, humming, singing and cooing to infants, helping them adjust to life outside the womb.

"Preemie babies grow better, emotionally and physically, when they get a lot of attention," explains Joan Brown, director of volunteer services at Georgetown University Hospital.

Though not new -- Georgetown's began in 1978 -- such programs are taking off around the country. While the trend is for healthy newborns to leave the hospital with their mothers within about 48 hours of birth, premature infants and those with other ailments often must remain in the hospital nurseries for extended periods. That's where the cuddlers come in.

Brown, who worked with nursing coordinator Janet Vail to refine the Georgetown program, says the "foster grandparents" -- who range from their mid-twenties through their seventies -- provide "the love, comfort and attention that fosters a sense of well-being in the babies, parents, nursing staff and the 'grandparents' themselves."

Georgetown's intermediate nursery has about 10 volunteers available as foster grandparents. Shady Grove Hospital, in Rockville, has an adoptive grandparent program of one: Mae Bauer.

Bauer, 77, makes a one-hour bus trip each day from her home in Gaithersburg to take care of her baby, most recently, "Allison," a ward of the court. "Allison gained 10 ounces since I started loving her," says Bauer. "They said she hadn't been expected to live, but I didn't know that. I just cuddled her, loved her and told her what a beautiful baby she is.

"I haven't done anything special."