I learned first hand how important it is to help NICU parents. Here's exactly how you can be there through these tough times.
No parent ever begins their journey hoping to find themselves and their newborns in the NICU (or neonatal intensive care unit). Yet according to the National Perinatal Association, about half a million babies are admitted into the NICU each year—with over 50% of them being full-term infants. My son was one of those babies, and now I know from experience how vital it is to help NICU parents and how exactly to go about it.
That two-month hospital stay was one of the longest, most stressful periods of my life. But 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 NICU parents, it’s actually not as difficult as it seems. There are many mindful ways to be there for parents, from simply showing up to sharing helpful meditations like the ones found on Expectful’s app—whose mission it is to support parents through all parts of the pregnancy and new parent experience, including the NICU.
How to Support NICU Parents:
1. Share Mindful Methods Of How They Can Bond With Their NICU Baby
One of the most difficult things in those first days in the NICU was being unable to hold my baby. Fortunately, the nurses on staff were great at explaining various methods of bonding with my NICU baby.
In those early, delicate days in his isolette, they showed me how I could assist with diaper changes and feeds. Once my son was extubated, they taught me about kangaroo care. The magic of holding your baby on your chest, skin-to-skin, is truly beyond words.
There are still other mindful ways to bond with a NICU baby, including talking and singing to the baby, or reading to them. If singing isn’t for you, playing soft music can also be soothing. You can even show them family photos so they can learn about the relatives that await them once they’re ready to graduate from the NICU.
You can also share Expectful’s NICU collection on the app, which features guided meditations on Bonding with Baby in the NICU for more ideas on how they can connect with their little one.
2. 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 Duffy 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 baby.
“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 ground breaking or medical advice but just having people there to comfort and support us during an emotional and traumatic time in our life.”
3. Remind NICU Parents To Take Time For Themselves
It’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in the NICU. I myself 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.
“Best advice we were given was not to feel we had to be by his side at every moment,” says Rachel Zients Schinderman, a writer based in Santa Monica, 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 they’re having trouble wanting to take time for themselves, you can also recommend the Permission to Rest meditations on the Expectful app’s NICU collection.
4. 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, that can remind them to take a moment to breathe, is an excellent idea.
Seattle-based Danielle Dreger, 40, says a friend gave her a basket filled with self-care supplies, including a blank journal.
“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 time period. “We were all so focused on my son’s survival, I forgot about my own health.”
You know your loved one best. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Loose-leaf tea helps settle their minds.
- 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 one does while visiting a NICU often leaves folks with raw, chapped hands.
5. Take Them Outside the NICU
Days can stretch on for seemingly forever in the NICU. This is especially true if you rarely go outside. Parents may initially hesitate at the idea of leaving their newborn’s bedside. Keep offering to get them outside for a bit. It can be something as simple as taking a walk outside along hospital grounds, or something more involved, like going out for a meal.
Dreger, whose son spent 3.5 months in the NICU (and then another 3 months in the hospital due to lung damage from a 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.”
Walking meditations can also be helpful. If your friend with a NICU baby isn’t feeling up for company though, you can always share one of Expectful’s NICU meditations with them so they can have a mindful moment alone outside.
6. Share Comforting Words (But Choose Them Carefully)
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 call or text 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 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 Albany, 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 2lbs 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, it seems there are five routes you can take 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 is a fan of humor (and their baby is past danger/is doing well), a moment of levity can 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 judgement.
- Offer to help in whatever way you can: sending care packages, sitting for their pets/kids/plants, household chores, etc.
The Greatest Support for NICU Parents is Showing You Care
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. These six gestures are a great start to helping be that support system for your loved ones that they may never ask for but will appreciate beyond belief. If you’re searching for more ways to support these parents, try suggesting the free trial to Expectful’s wellness app or offering them a guest pass from your own membership.