10 to 15 percent of all babies born today spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit. Here are a few ways you can help care for families on this sometimes long and often bumpy road…
A note from Valerie: I’ve always wanted to do a piece for Raising Richmond about how to best support the parents of babies who spend their first weeks or months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). But like a lot of people…I’m not sure how one really does that (and does it well). So I decided to call on Kristin Jimison, a dear friend and mother of a premie, to share what helped her family most during their time in the NICU. While we all hope that we will never have to put this advice to use, I think you’ll find it helpful.
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When soon-to-be moms and dads think about the first days of their new child’s life, few of them ever imagine a premature baby or an extended stay in the hospital. But these day 10 to 15 percent of all babies born need to spend some time in the neonatal intensive care unit.
I delivered our son six weeks early, literally almost in the front seat of my husband’s car in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Hospital. Our little boy’s low birth weight and propensity for occasionally just, oh, NOT BREATHING AT ALL bought him a stay in the NICU. My memories of the very beginning of his life will always be colored by fear and sadness and the powdery smell of hospital-grade hand sanitizer. I’ll never forget the specific pain of shuffling back to my hospital room every afternoon, passing elevators full of happy families taking their giant, healthy babies home.
But the other thing I won’t forget is the amazing generosity of our friends and family during that time. Someone took care of our dogs. Meals just showed up. Our house was cleaned. My mom and husband took turns sleeping on a very uncomfortable chair in my room with me until one day, a brand-new air mattress and sheets arrived. Friends came and sat with us and made us laugh. Then they held our hands and cried, too. They scrubbed up to their elbows, donned hospital gear, and cooed over our scrawny, tiny dude just like he was at home in his bassinet looking adorable, though he was hooked up to wires and intimidating monitors. We received constant texts, tweets, and emails of support from friends, family, and strangers alike.
I have never felt so loved in my entire life.
To this day, I’m still not sure who did what things for our family. I am sure that when people said they wanted to help, they REALLY meant it. They just didn’t always know what “help” was because it’s a tricky situation to navigate. I now get emails like this: ”Hey! My sister/friend/cousin just had her baby early and he’s in the hospital. What can I do for them?”
So here’s what helped us and the other families I got to know while we were all in the NICU.
1. Meet their basic needs
Whether a hospital stay is for a week or many months, the only thing new parents with a sick baby will be able to think about is their child. But they still have to eat and sleep! Hospital food is gross, so take them dinner or gift cards to nearby restaurants. If mom is able to stay with her little one in the hospital, take her snacks and drinks and hand moisturizer to keep in her room. If the new parents are home, clean out their fridge and restock it with basic items and a freezer full of meals. Walk their dogs. Mow their lawn. Do the laundry. Clean their house. Babysit their other children. Think about all the things you have to do in a week to make your household run. Your friends won’t want to do any of that at first, so gather the troops and get it done for them.
2. Take their emotional temperature
Your friends might want someone with them all the time. They might want no one around. They might want to talk endlessly about their new child and their worries. They might want to talk about baseball or laugh. They might want to you to cry with them. Chances are good they will want all of these things at different times, so check before you overwhelm them with well-meaning helpfulness.
3. Support them the way they need to be supported
If your friends want visitors and you are healthy and free of germs, please visit! Ask to go see their new addition if you are allowed, and act like their baby is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. If you can’t go see the baby, ask to see pictures and make appropriate cooing sounds. If your friends don’t want visitors, DON’T VISIT THEM. Send supportive messages or emails instead and make sure they know you are thinking about them. Do this often!
4. Check on Dad
New moms get all the attention…and dads get twice the worry. My husband got hit with a double whammy–our son was not doing well AND I was in very rough shape after the physical trauma of his birth. I saw this emotional punch to the face hit him just minutes after the baby’s arrival–should he stay with me and make sure I was ok or should he follow the nurses and doctors with our son? Make sure dad knows he is not alone. Tell him you’ll stay with mom and let him get out of the hospital for a while if he wants. Or take him out for a drink.
5. Get informed
One of my friends made it her job to send me positive statistics about preemies. Another one of my friends (a nurse practitioner) showed up with me one day and just took over, talking to nurses about how he was doing, taking care of our son’s diaper and sheets and bottles and feeding chart. Do a little bit of research and share it if it seems appropriate to do so. If your friends are religious, find out how to get their own pastor or chaplaincy services to visit them.
6. Find teeny, tiny baby things
Every new mom wants cute presents for her newborn, but it’s doubtful your friends have any clothes small enough to fit their preemie. Go find some very small things, wrap them up in nice paper, buy a cute card, and cheerfully deliver your gift. Bonus tip: preemie diapers are hard to come by. When you find them, stock up so you can fill the family’s house with them once it’s time for everyone to come home.
7. Make friends with the nurses
The nurses in the NICU with us were angels. I will be grateful to them every day for the rest of my life. These nurses work long hours with lots of stress, yet we never got anything but peaceful energy and excellent care from every single one of them. Drop off some cookies or cupcakes with a note saying the treats come from their little patient. Spread around some good karma–everyone needs it.
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If you have experience with what’s it like to have a child in the NICU, we’d love to hear from you. What helped? What didn’t? What made you feel most supported and care for? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.