TLDR: Whether it is your loved one’s first baby or their fourth, it can be incredibly difficult to have a new baby in the NICU. If you know any parents in this position, think about doing something nice for them like pitching in on chores or getting them out of the hospital for a bit.
No parent ever begins their journey expecting to find themselves and their newborn in the NICU (or neonatal intensive care unit). And yet, about 14.4% of babies born each year end up being admitted to the NICU1 , according to a 2011 March of Dimes report. My son was one of those babies, and that two-month hospital stay was one of the longest and most stressful periods of my life.
Therapist Amanda McClellan recognizes how hard this experience can be: "Being a NICU parent is a journey that's incredibly tough and filled with emotions that can be hard to put into words. It's a roller coaster of feelings, from worry and fear to hope and determination. It's a journey that shows you just how deep your love and resilience can go."
I'm grateful that as isolated and helpless as I felt in those days with my NICU baby, I always knew I had good people in my corner helping me get by.
While you may feel unsure of how to help parents navigate this experience, it’s not as difficult as it may seem and even a small gesture can go a long way. Here are some ideas on how to help the NICU parent in your life.
1. Help With Responsibilities Outside the NICU—Without Being Asked
Sometimes the easiest way to offer support is by helping NICU parents with everything else so that they can be present for their babies.
When 36-year-old author and teacher Crystal Duffy2 gave birth to identical twins at 30 weeks, her loved ones stepped up immediately. Some would pick up her then two-year-old daughter and take her out for playdates or time at the park so Duffy could focus on bonding with her NICU babies.
“Phone calls and text messages from friends and family were comforting, but it was the friends that did things without us having to ask,” says Duffy. “It wasn’t anything groundbreaking or medical advice, but just having people there to comfort and support us during an emotional and traumatic time in our life.”
2. Remind NICU Parents To Take Time For Themselves
It’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in the NICU. I stubbornly refused to go home and heal for days on end. In retrospect, I know I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by failing to care for myself. Self-care is so important for new parents, including those in the NICU.
“[The] best advice we were given was not to feel we had to be by his side at every moment,” says Rachel Zients Schinderman3 , a writer based in California. “The NICU nurses reminded me I was healing from major surgery, a C-section, and needed to get stronger as well so I could care for him.”
Zients Schinderman has had two separate NICU stays and says that advice allowed her to let go of any guilt she felt about going home and getting some rest.
If the parents you know are having trouble taking time for themselves, you can also recommend a postpartum recovery meditation from the Expectful app’s collection.
3. Drop Off Mindful Gifts
If being present physically isn’t an option, send or drop off some mindful gifts. Anything that can bring comfort to the anxious parent and remind them to take a moment to breathe is an excellent idea.
“I used (it) to write letters to my infant son,” says Drager. She wishes more people had focused more on her mental health during that period. “We were all so focused on my son’s survival, that I forgot about my health.”
Here are a few other gift ideas to get you started:
Loose-leaf tea to help settle their mind and bring them comfort.
An eye mask they can use for taking naps in the NICU can be helpful.
Hand lotion is also a great idea—the amount of hand washing you do while visiting the NICU often leaves you with raw, chapped hands.
4. Get Them Out of the NICU for a Little Bit
Days can stretch on for seemingly forever in the NICU. This is especially true if you rarely get out into the sun. But parents may initially hesitate at the idea of leaving their newborn’s bedside, and understandably so. Keep offering to get them outside for a bit. Your suggestions can be as simple as taking a walk around hospital grounds or something more involved, like going out for a meal.
Dreger, whose son spent three and a half months in the NICU (and then another three months in the hospital due to lung damage from heart surgery and other complications), says loved ones took her out for walks, which she found helpful.
“My mother [also] took me to a day spa to try and help me relax with a massage and a scrub,” says Drager. But she also adds that there’s one mindful outing she would have found particularly helpful: “I would have loved someone to have taken me to a restorative yoga class.”
5. Share Comforting Words…or Just Listen
You always remember who was there for you in those difficult days in the NICU. I still remember the handful of friends who frequently checked in by calling or texting because it meant the world to hear from them. Show NICU parents you care, even if they don’t always (or possibly don’t ever) respond until after they go home.
“It’s strange [that] you find out who your real friends are during such a traumatic situation,” says Kelly Lynn, an engineer and teacher who had a baby in the NICU at 24 weeks gestation.
“Many people later said they were thinking of me during that time. Why wouldn’t they send me a message saying anything just to let me know they were thinking of me and my family, instead of telling me later?” says Lynn, who is based in New York. “If you don’t know what to say, you could always just send a silly picture or a smiley face. Sometimes we just needed a good laugh to lighten the moment.”
36-year-old Jillian Bishop, a marketing manager in New Hampshire, adds that she wished people would simply celebrate the birth the same way they do an average birth. Her baby was born at 30 weeks and was just shy of 2 pounds at birth.
“Ask questions about the baby’s milestones,” says Bishop. But she does warn against one thing: “Do not keep asking when the baby will be going home. We do not know until the very day it happens, usually.”
“I always appreciated having people to let me vent or cry to,” adds Duffy. An open door puts the ball in the mother’s court and can allow for communication when she’s ready.
After crowdsourcing these thoughts and living through my own experience, I have a few pieces of advice when sending a message to support your loved ones:
Just let them know you’re thinking about them. Simple as that.
If you know this parent’s sense of humor (and their baby is past danger and is doing well), a moment of levity might be appreciated. Send over an inside joke or funny memory.
Celebrate the baby’s birth and milestones, but never pry for information.
Tell them you’re there if they need to talk it out. No fears. No expectations. And certainly no judgment.
Offer to help in whatever way you can: sending care packages, sitting for their pets/kids/plants, household chores, etc.
Being in the NICU is difficult, to say the least, but having loved ones who are present and who are there for you can make a rough start to parenthood all the better. Your loved ones in the NICU may not ask for your help–or even respond to your texts while they’re in the middle of it–but, trust me, they will appreciate your gestures and support more than you may ever know.