how to help a nicu family
Our twin girls came into this world 8 weeks (and 1 day!) prematurely. Josephine weighed 3 pounds, 9 ounces at birth, and spent 21 says in NICU. Margo weighed 4 pounds, 6 ounces at birth, and spent 20 days in NICU. Their time in NICU was short compared to many others, and the care they received was amazing. Regardless, it was an emotional and trying journey. My husband went back to work so that he could spend time with the girls when they came home. We struggled with balancing work, caring for our just-turned-two-year-old, Theo, and visiting the girls. I also had to pump every three hours. There were days that I didn’t go to the hospital to see the girls until Theo was in bed. I felt immensely guilty about this. Josie and Margo were teeny tiny little things, in their incubators, needing their mommy, and I wouldn’t show up until 8:00 at night!
We had amazing family and friends who were by our side and really supported us, and I’m so grateful that we didn’t have to go through this experience on our own. It can be difficult to know what to do in this situation, so I’ve outlined a few things that really helped us.
1. Be encouraging
The guilt, oh the guilt! I felt so much guilt that my babies were in NICU. Maybe my water wouldn’t have broken early if I hadn’t cleaned the kitchen that day. Maybe my contractions would have stopped if I drank more water. While I was on bedrest I wished with every fiber of my being that I could be home with my son. Maybe if I hadn’t so desperately wanted to go home, the babies would have stayed put. When I visited the babies in NICU, I felt guilty leaving my two-year-old (who had just been without his mommy for two weeks). I felt guilty when I was at home with Theo because I wasn’t with my premature babies. When I was pumping milk, I felt guilty that I wasn’t present with any of my children. If I missed a pumping session because I was spending time with the kids, I felt guilty for that! You can send encouraging texts or cards letting the family know that they are doing a great job and that their babies are lucky to have them.
2. Be specific
I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I lacked the capacity to make decisions. Sending a text that says “what can I do to help?” might have good intentions, but they honestly overwhelmed me more than helped. Give examples of the tasks you are willing to do, and the days you are available to do it. “I am free Tuesday and Thursday. I can watch the kids while you visit the babies in NICU, and I can drop off dinner on Friday. Let me know what helps the most.” You can always add an ‘or anything else you may need’ to the end of your text in case there is something else you could do.
I had several friends send me texts like this and almost cried from happiness. It takes the legwork out of planning for me, and the emotional effort of having to make a decision.
Here are a few specific tasks you can offer to do:
- Watch the older children while parents visit NICU
- Offer to drive older children to and from school and extracurricular activities
- Grocery shop
- Set up the nursery
- Buy diapers or preemie clothes
- Take care of any pets
- Household work: wash dishes, do laundry, etc.
- Cook dinner or drop off takeout
- Yardwork: shovel snow, cut the grass, etc.
3. Don’t ask when the baby is coming home
They won’t know until the day of release that their babies are coming home. Asking them will just make them dwell on the fact that they don’t know. You CAN say that you are praying and hoping for homecoming to happen soon!
4. Keep showing up
The NICU is very cautious about the spread of germs. Since there are a ton of germs on cell phones we weren’t allowed to touch our phones while we were visiting the NICU. Sometimes a friend would text me and I would see it as I was walking into the hospital. In my rush to get in there and hold my sweet girls, I wouldn’t respond. When I left, I’d be busy calling my husband or mom to give updates. I’d get home and have to pump milk for the babies and care for Theo. Sometimes days would go by, and I would think “oh, didn’t so and so check in on me a few days ago?”
Sometimes I was too sad to talk about how my girls were doing, but I still wanted to know that people were thinking about them. Friends, if you don’t hear back from NICU parents, keep texting. Let them know that you don’t expect an immediate response, and that is perfectly fine with you, but that you are thinking of them, and praying for them. You can just say “thinking of you. No need to respond.” It means the world.
5. Be understanding if you cannot visit the babies in NICU
Our babies were born in February, during cold and flu season. During this season, the NICU only allows families to add four people to their visitor list. We only put my husband’s parents on the list, as we had no other family nearby. Thankfully, all of our friends were very understanding.
I felt jealous of the time that others spent with the girls. I was jealous of the nurses that got to give my babies their bottles and change their clothes. One nurse told me she enjoyed putting them in new outfits every day because it was fun to dress them. Her comment (though probably well intended) made me sob into my breast pump in the pumping room at NICU. I was their mommy, and I wasn’t able to choose their clothes and care for them. In my postpartum, emotional state, it felt as if this nurse was rubbing it in that she was enjoying caring for my girls. NICU mamas have to share their time with their babies with so many people; nurses, doctors, social workers, occupational therapists, and lactation consultants. There might be a mommy that doesn’t want visitors because she can’t bear the thought of sharing any more of her time with her precious baby. Don’t take offense, after a few weeks home she might be calling you to come visit in the middle of the night!
So, if you have a friend who has a baby in the NICU, remember: offer to help but be specific; be understanding, and be THERE. And to my dear friends who were there for me… thank you.