September is NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) Awareness Month. Do you know a parent with a NICU baby? Perhaps it’s a friend. Or, perhaps it’s you (or, it was you). For those who aren’t familiar, NICU Awareness Month was established by a group called Project Sweet Peas in 2014: “In an effort to build a community committed to increasing awareness of the challenges faced in the NICU, and to expand resources to NICU’s nationwide, Project Sweet Peas sought to create a month dedicated to NICU awareness.” —Project Sweet Peas
Since talking publicly about our NICU experience, people are somewhat familiar with our story. I’m never surprised when I get a message from someone saying, “My friend just gave birth, and their baby is in the NICU. What can I do to help them?”
It’s a helpless feeling, being a NICU parent (or knowing someone who is). For many, it is uncharted territory. I am here today to let you know that you don’t need to feel helpless. But don’t just take my word for it.
I asked local moms who are part of the Detroit Mom community to share what helped and supported them throughout their NICU stay.
What are some ways to support a parent with a NICU baby?
Here are seven things you can do, in no particular order:
Check in with Them
During this time, I really did not feel like talking to anyone. But I had so much to say — I just didn’t know how to say it. A wonderful way to support a parent with a NICU baby is to simply check in with them.
“Another thing that helped me a lot was reporting my son’s progress to our family and all of them being so excited when he progressed but also extremely supportive when I’d cry if he declined.” –Dakota Coldicott
“Some friends checking in with me to see how I was doing and what I needed, and also seeing how baby was doing. Allowing me to vent, be angry, sad, cry, etc.” –Gina Kent
“The gift of having someone else be the person to field questions and coordinate help for the family is also very valuable.” –Rachel Schwartz
Offer to Babysit or Simply Provide a Break
When your baby is in the NICU, you will likely spend the majority of your time there. I would go during the day while my husband worked, and then we’d go together in the evening as soon as he got home. It’s a lot of time away from family. Another way to support a parent with a NICU baby is to offer to babysit (if you’re able) or just provide a small break.
“We’ve had four NICU babies, the last being in April. With this last one we had so many offers of babysitting our other kids so that we could both spend time together in the NICU.” –Emily Martin
“Giving me a break… This may be difficult in COVID times, but it was a stress reliever. Mamas spend all their time hunkered down in that room to not miss a single thing, and it really is beneficial to walk away for a bit.” –Liz Mott
Don’t Underestimate the Goodness of Food
This is usually one of the first things that comes to my mind when someone asks how to support a parent with a NICU baby — bring them food. A NICU parent spends a LOT of time in the hospital and sometimes, meals and snacks are eaten there, too. I used to pack snacks in my purse to eat on the way home. Cooking a meal was not high on our priority list.
“…Prior when I was hospitalized for a few weeks (preeclampsia) before delivery, two of my friends started a meal train while my husband was home with our other two children. It was the most helpful, considerate, and thoughtful thing anyone has ever done for us.” –Gina Kent
“What I have done for other NICU families is gift gas cards and gift cards from coffee shops and restaurants near the hospital their baby is in.” –Rachel Schwartz
“The best thing a couple friends did for me was the simplest thing — they brought meals to our home and dropped them off on our doorstep. They didn’t ask to come in, talk, or anything else. They just texted me when the meal was outside our door. I appreciated the support and privacy SO much during that difficult time.” –Erin Huntington Abell
“Also little care packages, like snacks for mom or dad, while at the hospital was helpful. The first weeks were scary so we stayed at the hospital as much as we could, sometimes not taking breaks as we should, so little snack boxes or coffee deliveries were nice.” –Shanell Weatherspoon
Check What’s Left on Their Registry
Our NICU baby was our first, and she was born less than two weeks after our baby shower. Our registry still had some items left. If there is not a registry, there are items that NICU moms and dads appreciate during this difficult time. You can support a parent with a NICU baby in a few ways with this.
“We also appreciated gifts of preemie clothes because they were hard to find in stores.” –Maggie Guth
“Someone gave me a baby wrap that was helpful with koala care…We also got books to read to baby which was sweet.” –Shanell Weatherspoon
“Some of the best gifts were crosswords/books/journals, slippers and socks, cozy clothes, and toiletries! You forget how magical a new toothbrush or deodorant can be when you are in there for weeks at a time. “ –Liz Mott
“…A good backpack to carry your stuff, a breastmilk cooler, a sanitizer/bottle dryer combo (this has been a lifesaver for pump parts).” –Rebecca Wierzba
Offer to Help with Housework
I asked my mom and my mother-in-law if they could take down the Christmas tree while I was in the hospital. They not only did that, but they cleaned the entire house, too. The kind act almost brought me to tears. With the overwhelming stress of the NICU’s ups and downs, an easy way to support a parent with a NICU baby is to offer to help around their house — whether from you, or a company.
“Someone to look after your lawn/house/houseplants (cleaning service, lawn service, etc).” –Breanna Mendiola
“…Someone to come clean the bathroom/kitchen/bedroom and change the sheets while I’m gone because these are the only rooms we use right now. “ –Rebecca Wierzba
Fill Their Gas Tank
When your baby is in the NICU, you try your hardest to not miss a thing. That means a lot of trips to the hospital. When our daughter was in the NICU, we went a minimum of twice per day. If you want to support a parent with a NICU baby, think about their gas tank.
“No NICU experience, but I’ve gifted gas cards to friends who had to haul back and forth each day.” –Sabrina French
Encourage Them to Focus on Themselves
This one is hard. When your baby is in the NICU, *you* are in the NICU. It is very difficult to think of anything else. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how the world keeps spinning when your whole world is inside of a small isolette, fighting so hard. To support a parent with a NICU baby, you could gift them a journal or some lotion to help them remember the many thoughts in their mind and soothe their hands which are dry from all the hand washing.
“…Journaling your experiences lets you look back at the progress that’s being made which is helpful when you are immersed in the day-to-day and it seems like there is no light at the end of the tunnel.” –Liz Mott
“It’s almost impossible to think about yourself after having a baby. Doubly so with the NICU life in my experience. So some sort of self care gift basket (lotion, face mask, etc.) or gift card for a haircut or manicure to be saved for a rainy day would be awesome.” –Breanna Mendiola
“A photographer friend gifted a full photo shoot in the NICU, helping us celebrate our new baby despite the stressful circumstances.” –La Bethânia
The NICU is never easy. It can be isolating and leave you feeling so helpless. If you want to support a parent with a NICU baby, there are so many ways to help. Start by reaching out to them and letting them know you’re there. The rest will fall into place. And soon enough, the NICU experience will become a distant memory.