Most parents aren’t expecting their newborn to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). “Ultimately their baby is in the NICU because either they came early or the baby is sick,” says Jeanette Doherty, a social worker who specializes in the NICU at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “Parents are very frightened: They’re processing a huge amount of information at once, and they also have a lot of practical needs in the background.”
That’s where friends and family come in. There’s plenty of ways to make this experience a little bit easier on them.
1. Bring food, food and more food
The new mom will likely be spending long days in the NICU, and like anyone recovering from birth, she will be hungry. Hospital cafeterias can get old (and expensive) pretty fast, so organize a meal train with others in her community. Bring frozen pre-prepared meals to heat up at the hospital (most have microwaves), packed lunches, healthy snacks like fruit (which can be pricey and hard to come by at some hospitals), and of course some of her favourite treats. If she’s breastfeeding or pumping, bake up a batch of lactation cookies or muffins. And don’t forget about her partner or family. If she has other kids at home, feed them too. Cooking is the last thing that she or her partner will want to do after spending a long day at the hospital.
2. Offer a ride
“Rides to the hospital were the best—it took away the worry of getting there or getting home,” says one NICU veteran, a mom of twins who had to spend several weeks in the hospital. Depending on where the hospital is located she (or her partner) may need help with transit getting back and forth. Driving your friend provides a time for you both to catch up and she doesn’t have to get behind the wheel in a sleep-deprived state. You can also offer to buy her a gift card for Uber or a local taxi service.
3. Make a care package
Long days and nights in the hospital can be lonely, exhausting and even boring. A care package filled with goodies can be a lifesaver. Doherty recommends packing it with treats (all the snacks!), a water bottle (to combat dry hospital air), face wipes, a blanket, books, magazines, a travel charger for her phone, a pillow, and an eye mask. Include a journal and a pen as well. “Journals have been shown to be very useful to help [parents] cope with what’s happening,” says Doherty. “Some people write letters to their babies.” A journal is also a great way to track the baby’s progress and procedures.
4. It takes a village
Life in the NICU: a case study in hopeLife outside the hospital goes on, and if your friend has other kids, she will need as much help as she can get. Offer to take the kids on playdates, drop them off or pick them up at school (making sure you’re on an approved pickup list) or take them to and from their activities. It’s likely a stressful time for these kiddos as well, so offering them emotional support is key. Even delivering little care packages for the kids can be nice while their mom is away.
5. Help out at home
Organize someone to clean their house, do their laundry, or walk their dog. If the baby arrived very early (as is often the case with NICU babies) offer to go over and put together a crib or finish setting up the nursery, so they don’t have to do those time-consuming chores when they arrive home.
6. Celebrate the baby
“Parents do like small gifts for their baby—they often don’t get any, as people don’t know what to do,” explains Doherty. You can find some specialized NICU items like a preemie octopus, NICU crib cards, or even just books to read to the baby. Most NICU parents recommend against gifting baby clothes, because depending on what treatment is necessary, the baby may not be wearing any clothing at all. But if you do want to pick out something cozy, keep in mind that outfits with buttons and snaps accommodate monitors and wires better than zip-up clothing does. Also, don’t bother with diapers, as the hospital will be using specific diapers to measure output.
7. Offer emotional support
Sometimes, friends and family who aren’t sure of what to say end up saying nothing, which makes the whole NICU experience feel quite lonely. Moms with babies in the NICU are at a higher risk for postpartum depression, says Doherty. Listen, offer kind words and be aware of your language, says Doherty. Avoid comparing babies in any way, says Doherty. It’s also worth asking them if they’d like to designate one friend or family member to be the point person for all requests, so that the parents don’t have to field a million questions and constantly provide updates. “We try and reinforce that the mom’s well-being is really important—they need to be careful they’re not running themselves into the ground and spending the whole time on the phone to other people,” explains Doherty.
8. Keep up the momentum
“People don’t stop needing support after the first couple of weeks,” says Doherty. Families can spend days, weeks or even months in the hospital with a sick or premature baby. “As it goes on, it actually gets more difficult for parents, because one partner has to return to work and the other kids in the family still need to get back to their routine,” says Doherty. The new-mom adrenaline may have run out by then, and she might need help now more than ever, as she slowly recovers from birth, navigates nursing or pumping (if that’s an option for her), and continues to care for the new baby. Stay in touch with her friends and family network and be there for her, for as long as she needs.
9. Give what you can
Having a NICU baby is not only exhausting and stressful, it’s expensive. Hospital parking is often very pricey, as is eating out constantly. Offer to pay for their gas or parking (you could pool your money from friends), buy them gift cards for restaurants or coffee shops in or near the hospital, send them a meal delivery service credit, or buy them an Uber Eats card so they can have things delivered and mix it up a bit. You can also offer to pay their phone bills or top up their data plans (there’s usually a lot of texting, calling and social media updates to keep everyone looped in). An iTunes gift card encourages them to download movies, audiobooks or music for their time at the bedside.
10. Offer, but don’t expect, to visit
Doherty says that many of the moms she works with seem to really look forward to visitors as a way to break up the long days. Offer to meet your friend for a coffee at the hospital. “But I would never ask to see the baby,” she adds. Do not show up unannounced—most babies (and moms) are on a strict schedule of feeding, changing and pumping, so keep that in mind if you want to visit. She probably really does want to see you, but timing is tricky—and things can change quickly in a hospital setting if their baby is quite ill. Never visit if you are at all sick, as newborns and preemies are vulnerable to viruses. (Don’t bring your germy preschooler to the hospital, either.)