When a friend’s baby is in the NICU: 10 Things You Can Do to Help
Kaylee Hurt, Parent Support Program Coordinator, ICN Patient and Family Support Services
Childbirth is supposed to be a joyful time, but when a mother gives birth to a preemie she can feel scared, overwhelmed and isolated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
I know firsthand what NICU moms are going through, because I was one. My daughter, Kaydee, was born at 25 weeks. She weighed 1 lb., 6 oz. and was 12 inches long. She faced numerous uphill battles and we spent nine months in the NICU before my husband and I brought her home for the first time. That was five years ago. Today, Kaydee is a healthy and active preschooler.
It wasn’t an easy journey, but I learned a lot during my time spent in the NICU at Children’s Mercy. I now work in the same NICU offering my support to other parents, and here are a few things friends and family can do to offer their support too.
Reach out, but don’t expect a reply
Let the new mom know you’re thinking of her and her family. The support is appreciated and means so much, but just know it’s impossible for her to respond to everyone.
When you do speak with the mom, don’t try to relate to her and don’t say “I know how you feel,” because unless you had a baby with the same challenges you don’t truly know how she feels. Instead, just listen. That’s what she needs most during this time someone to just listen.
Tip for NICU moms: Ask a family member to return calls and texts for you. You can also keep friends and family updated through Facebook. I found it was a quick way to share information broadly and it reassured me that I didn’t have to respond to everyone individually. Another tip, limit yourself on Facebook, because it’s hard not to compare your life to others around you.
Tell the parents congratulations! This is supposed to be a happy time and even though it’s not exactly what they had hoped for, they still had a child, which should be celebrated. It’s just a different type of celebration.
Tip for NICU moms: This won’t be the celebration you had envisioned, but make sure to celebrate the milestones.
Give Preemie Parents time to Grieve
Family and friends need to understand that grieving is part of the process. While parents are happy their child is alive, they’re also grieving the loss of what they thought was going to be a joyful time, so they need to work through their emotions.
Tip for NICU moms: Recognize that family and friends are also mourning in their own way. My parents had a hard time, because they had to watch me and my family go through the pain and suffering, and they couldn’t do anything about it.
Offer Rides to the Hospital
Something as simple as offering a ride to-and-from the hospital is an easy way to help and can make a world of difference. We lived an hour away, so friends that worked in Kansas City would give me rides to the hospital. My mom or husband would come to visit in the evening and bring me home.
Gas cards are another great gift. The miles can quickly add up when you’re driving to the hospital every day.
Tip for NICU Moms: Go home at night and sleep if you can. You need to take care of yourself, so you can take care of your child to your full potential. Build relationships with the nurses so you feel comfortable leaving the hospital. I would call and check on Kaydee as soon as I got home, before I went to bed, if I woke up in the middle of the night and again in the morning before I headed back to the hospital. I tried to be as connected as possible while away.
Preparing dinner is the last thing on any NICU parents’ mind. Provide the family with a home-cooked meal, so they don’t have to eat hospital food day after day. Also think about making individual portions that can be frozen and brought to the NICU for lunch.
Give gift certificates to area restaurants. My husband and I always appreciated gift certificates and would go out to eat on our way home from the hospital. We may not say two words to each other, but it was nice to go to dinner and not have an expectation to relive the day.
Make grab-and-go snack packs. Having healthy snacks on hand in the NICU is a must. Granola bars, trail mix and even fresh fruit is a quick way to reenergize throughout the day.
Tip for NICU Moms: If someone offers to take you out for lunch, go! You need to eat and leaving the unit for a couple hours will do you good. Also, don’t forget to drink plenty of water.
It’s not something you think about, but NICU parents need quarters for the vending machines. A church group gave us a basket full of goodies, which included five dollars in quarters and it was a great gift, because you never have change when you need it.
Tip for NICU Moms: Money can carry germs and bacteria, so it’s important to wash your hands after touching dollar bills and coins to help prevent your little one from getting sick.
Give a Journal
A journal makes a great gift. Some moms find it therapeutic to write about their experience in the NICU. In addition to a journal, you can also give word puzzles, adult coloring books and magazines.
Tip for NICU Moms: Don’t forget to take lots of pictures. You baby is growing bigger every day and you’ll want to look back at the milestones someday.
Help with Chores and Pets
Clean the house and do laundry. My mom, her friend and my sister-in-law did this without asking me, because they knew if they’d asked I’d say “no,” but it was so nice coming home to a clean house and clean clothes.
Walk the dog, buy pet food so it’s one less thing they have to worry about or even offer to foster the family pets during the NICU stay.
It’s always the little things that helped the most.
Tip for NICU Moms: Friends and family are going to offer to help. Let them! It gives them a way to show support and it really does let you focus on your family.
Help with Siblings
Parents are juggling a lot during their stay in the NICU, but its important siblings maintain a routine life as much as possible. Offer rides to school, practice or games. Have a playdate or a sleepover, so parents can spend time at the hospital.
Tip for NICU Moms: The hospital has a lot of great programs for siblings. Utilize Child Life for support. They can meet with the sibling and go over what they’re about to experience and they can help entertain kids at the bedside. Include other children in your baby’s care if they’re old enough. After Kaydee came home and we finally got to the point where we’d go out places, I’d have my nieces and nephews be in charge of making sure everyone washed their hands. They took this responsibility very seriously as it was a way for them to help keep Kaydee healthy.
Don’t Forget about Dads and Partners
While moms and babies are usually the main focus, don’t forget about the dads and partners. They also need to take care of themselves and are dealing with the same emotions.
Many times the significant other is still going to work and they’re dealing with the guilt of not being at the hospital every day. Make sure to reach out and let them know you’re thinking of them.
Tip for NICU Moms: Your significant other is really the only other person that knows what you’re going through, so take time for each other. While your child is important, your relationship is as equally important and you’ll need each other to get through this.
Kaylee and her daughter, Kaydee, were featured on Inside Pediatrics in 2014. Watch here.