When that pregnancy test turns positive, you are elated (well, I mean, hopefully)! It is such an exciting time, and the first thoughts you have once the shock wears off are of the nursery, names, finding a doctor, the works! As your pregnancy progresses, your birth plan can start to take shape, and your excitement grows for the big day.
But then, sometimes, things don’t go the way we envisioned. Sometimes our babies have to spend time in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit).
The truth is, no one ever plans to become a veteran of the NICU. It’s a scary and heartbreaking place to be.
Since it is September, in honor of “NICU Awareness Month,” we have made a list of things that you can do to help a family you know that is experiencing the NICU firsthand. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to offering support, but some empathy can go a long way. The following advice may seem a bit blunt, but you would be surprised how many people are completely insensitive to these types of situations.
1. Understand They Are Grieving
Parents whose babies end up in the NICU grieve, even if their baby is alive and fortunate enough to eventually leave. They are grieving because the birth likely did not go according to what they thought it would. They are grieving because their baby may have long-term health implications. They are grieving because their baby may not leave the hospital alive. They are grieving because perhaps the breastfeeding relationship they desired is not happening.
For us, we were grieving because we couldn’t bring our baby home, and we were unsure of his health. A newborn being separated from his or her mother is the most unnatural thing in the world, and my god, it hurts. You feel depressed, angry, hopeless, and worst of all, guilty.
Let them grieve, even if you don’t personally think that what they are experiencing is “that bad.” The fact of the matter is, you can’t know unless you experience it yourself. And please don’t say, “It could have been worse,” or “Well at least you are ok.” Those phrases minimize the family’s experience and make them feel worse. Also, avoid phrases like, “Everything happens for a reason” and “Everything will be fine.”
Instead say, “I am so sorry, and can’t possibly understand what you are going through, but I am here for you!”
2. Offer Meals, Childcare, Preemie Diapers, or Rides to the Hospital
When you’re in the thick of the haze of exhaustion and healing that comes from just having a baby and making daily trips to the NICU, it can be difficult to verbalize what you need. Meals and rides to the hospital can help new parents so, so much. Even gift cards for coffee can help a great deal. If the family has older children, offer to watch them as the parents head to the hospital. One thing we did not think about was that our son needed preemie clothes and diapers once he came home. If you can help them grab some diapers for their home stash, they will be grateful! Some NICU babies are too big for preemie clothes, but it never hurts to ask.
The week after Baby A was born, Barclay had to go to drill as part of his military service. Since I had a C-Section, I couldn’t drive for at least 2-3 weeks. I was struggling with my stitches bleeding climbing up and down the stairs. It was deeply appreciated when friends and family dropped off meals for us and offered to drive me to the hospital while Barclay was away. It was one less thing to worry about while I was transporting breastmilk, caring for my baby, and trying to heal.
3. Don’t Take Anything Personally
When someone is pregnant, it’s natural for everyone to feel invested. Some people feel they are “owed” a chance to see the baby first. The fact is, the family may not want you there in the NICU, or they may not be allowed to have visitors depending on the condition of the child. Or, some families may. In this situation, it is best to let the family ask you if you would like to see the baby: do not assume you will be invited! We had a friend casually text that he was going to “swing by the NICU” as if he was going to go to Taco Bell or something!
For our son, we were not allowed to have visitors because of his size and the concern that he may have long-term effects, not to mention that he had stopped breathing more than once. Honestly, we didn’t want anyone there anyway, as we are the type of people that prefer to be alone to process big emotions. Other people prefer to be around people while grieving. The NICU allows only 2 visitors.
The important thing is that if a family does not want visitors, or they have been instructed to not have visitors, do not take it personally. If they don’t want visitors immediately when they come home with their baby, do not take it personally. It’s not about you, and you’ll just look like an ass if you try to make it about you.
4. Be Patient and Listen
A family who has experienced a traumatic birth and NICU stay may tell you their story repeatedly. Please be patient and let them talk if they choose to. Their experience may not make sense to them or feel incredibly unfair, and talking about it can be therapeutic. You may get tired of hearing the story; that is ok. But if you let them talk it out, you’ll really be helping them heal.
I don’t know how many times I’ve told my birth story. I’m sure it’s annoying to people by now, but each time I tell it, it truly does feel like I’ve lifted a weight from my shoulders. Even almost a year later, it still hurts.
On the flip side, if the family does not want to go into detail about what happened, don’t pressure them. They may lash out in anger or get emotional if you try to press for information before they are ready. This is normal! They may be open to sharing their story in the future.
5. Tell Them They Are Doing a Great Job
One of the worst things that NICU parents feel is the guilt. They may feel that their baby being in the NICU is their fault. Offering encouragement by saying, “You are amazing parents and your baby is lucky to have you!” is so lovely. Even a simple, “I love you and I am here for you” can make a world of difference. It takes strong individuals to survive the emotional and mental strain of the NICU, but even the best parents can feel like they are behind the curve when it comes to these circumstances. Let them know you think they are awesome!
6. Respect Their Wishes When They Bring Baby Home
When the precious babe makes it home, the parents may have some requests that may not make sense to you, like sanitizing your phone, washing your hands, and taking off your shoes before you see the baby. NICU babies are at greater risk for illness, especially in the early stages, so just respect their wishes—and please do not visit if you are ill or have spent time around someone that is ill. That can hurt little babies. As mentioned previously, if they don’t want visitors, that’s ok. They will come around once they have settled in. Don’t try to make them feel bad for not taking visitors.
When it doubt: ask! Saying, “I really want to help and support you, but I’m not sure how. What can I do?” is thoughtful! If their baby has long-term health implications, or has passed away, many families want people to ask them gently about their child. If the baby has a health condition, some parents take the opportunity of you asking to spread awareness and educate. If the baby has passed, asking gently what their baby was like can help them keep the memory of their precious one alive.
It’s also important to note that a family does not “just get over” experiencing the NICU. They carry those experiences with them forever because it is life-changing to not have the opportunity to be with your newborn and take them home right after they are born. It changes your life to not be sure if your baby will survive.
No one ever expects to spend time in the NICU, but having great support can truly lift their spirits and make the whole situation a little easier to bear. If you are a family member reading this, know that your efforts at being a gentle presence during this time will not go unnoticed! Thank you for being empathetic and loving!
Are you a NICU veteran? What were some of the things that helped you the most during that time? Let us know in the comments below!