I’d heard of the NICU. I knew some NICU nurses and friends whose child had spent time there. And when my first two kids were born, I remember nurses making vague reference to the 3rd floor, but I never saw it. I’m fairly sure my firstborn even spent a couple hours in that 3rd floor NICU, but I don’t know for sure. It was brief, I was groggy, and he was back in my arms before I really knew what happened.
We couldn’t have survived last spring without the help of family and friends who came to our rescue in a million little ways. But I think now about how little I understood of the NICU before it became our temporary world, and how little I knew before this about how to come alongside friends while their babies spent time in intensive care.
So, I’m here to share some ways you can be a genuine help to a friend or relative if one of them ends up with a baby in the NICU. Keep in mind, of course, that this is one mama’s opinion of what’s helpful. I’m an introvert and a mother of three littles. And my baby spent over three months in the hospital. The best thing to do is ASK your friend how you can help in their unique situation, because they may not be exactly like me!
But here are my best recommendations of how to be a rockstar NICU family friend:
Give a gift.
Honestly, I know gifts may seem less personal to you than hands-on help…but gifts people shared with us during our NICU stay helped us survive. I can’t overstate it. It was the best way for the most people to support us. Gifts helped us better cope with this traumatic (and expensive) time in so many ways. Here are some good gift ideas to get you started:
- Hand sanitizer
- Hand lotion
- Water bottles
- Preemie knit caps
- A coverlet for the baby’s isolette
- Preemie swag from an Etsy shop like TinyIsTheNewBig or TheLittlestLambs
- Gas cards if they are traveling to & from home
- Gift cards for restaurants near the hospital
- Visa gift cards to pay for hospital food
- Target gift cards (a mom’s best friend, especially postpartum when your clothes don’t fit)
- Spare breast pump parts (if your friend is pumping milk for the baby)
- ASK what they need! Even though we already owned a lot of baby items, our preemie ended up needing some extras that got expensive (i.e. preemie bottle nipples).
Offer to help.
The most valuable ways family and friends gave us hands-on help was by caring for my other kids when we needed it and by giving me rides to the hospital before I was allowed to drive post-c-section. In our case, we also ended up needing help with projects around the house. But every family’s needs may be different, so just ask if you aren’t sure how to help. Sites like SignUp or SignupGenius are great tools for scheduling volunteers if your friend is up for a crew of helpers.
Be okay with rejection.
If your friends don’t take you up on your offers to help, try not to take it personally. In some ways it’s a very helpless time for a family. We found that, with our other kids being so little, they could really only handle a small rotation of people in and out of our house on a regular basis or it was meltdown city. So we had to limit our helping crew and say no to many genuine people who offered assistance.
Wash your hands and sanitize your phone whenever you do visit the baby…for the entire first year.
Germs can prove fatal for preemies and medically fragile babies, so scrubbing your hands well is important. As NICU parents, we’re charged with keeping our kids infection-free. It’s a lot of pressure. So be a friend and just wash your hands before they even have to remind you. Bonus points if you clean your phone with a disinfecting wipe, too, since phones are usually loaded with germs.
Don’t be offended if you don’t get to go see the baby.
When my son was born a 26 weeks, we knew he’d be in the NICU for a long time. At first I thought that we’d entertain a fair amount of visitors over time. This ended up being both emotionally hard and logistically near impossible. I could give you long, complicated explanations for this that involve tube-feeding schedules, kangaroo care and rush hour traffic…or you can just trust me. I found it hard just to coordinate my own visit times (especially with other small children at home), and just couldn’t manage coordinating visitors most of the time…even close relatives.
Send a message.
Many people who weren’t able to come help us or visit send us texts and messages that really encouraged us and helped us feel connected to our support system even when we couldn’t be together in person. Wondering if you should shoot them a Facebook message to say you care? Just do it.
Be sensitive in the way you share your mommy hardships.
How do I say this. We ALL deal with hard things, and even typical motherhood is hard. Your NICU friends should get that. But during this traumatic time, they *might* not appreciate you complaining about the 8 times you have to pump milk at work if they are exclusively pumping…and they *might* not appreciate you groaning because you can’t put down your fussy baby if they are driving 45 minutes each way to hold theirs for an hour a day. Then again, they really might want to hear it. I’m not being sarcastic. They might! Just suggesting some sensitivity. Don’t be afraid to ask your friend what they can handle during this traumatic time.
Want to gain more empathy and understanding about their NICU journey?
However you end up helping your friends during their NICU journey, know that it’ll encourage them through this hard time. I found our NICU adventure to often be lonely and isolating, even with so many friends and relatives surrounding us. Your care and concern will be worth the effort!