Unless you've personally been there it can be difficult to know what to do or say when someone's baby is in the neonatal unit. The coming months will be pretty tough, so we've put together some insight and advice from past NICU parents on how you can help the family through it:
First of all, please acknowledge our baby’s birth - this may seem like obvious thing to do, but you’d be surprised how many people don't say a word to us about our baby and it really hurts. Yes we get that it can be scary - we know all about the survival rates and potential complications, and our little fighter probably has a long battle ahead. This is why we need all the support we can get! Please don’t stay silent out of fear of saying the wrong thing or in case our baby doesn’t make it, instead be brave enough to send a card, a quick message of congratulations, or simply let us know that you’re thinking of us all. Definitely send an appropriate gift if you want to (more on that later), but there are also many other ways you can take some of the pressure off and allow us to spend more time with our precious miracle.
The most important thing is our baby and their routine at the hospital. Often it feels like we can’t actually do much for our baby as they need a lot of medical support in the NICU, but every 3 hours or so baby has their ‘cares’ which we’re shown how to do. Cares involves taking baby’s temperature, giving them a gentle clean and nappy change, then tube/bottle/breast feeding. If our little one is stable enough we might also get a kangaroo cuddle which is the best part of our day! When we’re not at our baby’s bedside, mums will probably be trying to express every 2-3 hours, partners still have to get to work (except if they have a generous boss or are able to take time off), we eat if/when we remember to, then try to get some sleep before starting all over. It’s kind of like groundhog day, and unless we have older children or pets to care for nothing else really matters.
- Think about our household and those everyday, practical things. Does our home have a lawn that needs mowing, a dog that needs walking, or have we got other children that you could babysit or take out for an afternoon? If there’s any chance you can help please do!
- Food! We know nutrition is important and all that, but going to the supermarket or even thinking about cooking dinner isn’t high on our priority list. Coming home to some easy heat and eat type meals will probably save us from living on chocolate bars, takeaways, or whatever we can throw together from the freezer. If you know of a few people that are all wanting to help then consider setting up a meal train to spread it out over a several weeks (or months for those families facing a longer NICU stay). Baking or snacks that we can take with us to the hospital each day are amazing too and will remind us to take a break and eat.
TIP: If you’d like to organise food but live further away, Bellyful are a wonderful organisation that drop off a free pack of main meals to families with new babies. See www.bellyful.org.nz for locations and more info. Some churches and community groups offer a similar service for their local area.
- Travel can be a huge problem and it gets ridiculously expensive. Depending on the hospital there may be a few NICU carparks or a pass allowing parents to get discounted or free parking, but more than likely we’re going to spend a small fortune on travel. Up here at Auckland Hospital/Starship, a full days' parking is $19, and then there's petrol on top! If you have time during the day then perhaps offer to drop us off to the hospital, this is especially helpful for the c-section mums because we’re usually not allowed to drive for about 6 weeks.
TIP: When you ask if we need anything don’t be surprised if we reply with something like “no, we’re fine.” Truthfully we’re not, it’s just the easiest answer! We’d really appreciate anything you can do - instead of asking if we need any help, be specific and say “what day/time can I ….. for you.”
- Send us a message to check in - but please don’t take it personally if we don’t respond! Even though we do check our messages, we’re a little pre-occupied, stressed out and sleep deprived so we might forget to answer. A positive, inspirational quote or thoughtful message would be perfect, plus it gives us a little more hope when we’re having a rough day. We might share our baby’s progress through our social media accounts or in a group chat, or maybe have organised someone closest to us to pass on updates to everyone else. Find out if we do (or suggest it if we haven’t!), as it saves us repeating the same updates and is far easier to manage.
- Ask if we’d like to have a quick catch up. There are times when we’ll need fresh air, a hug, a shoulder to cry on or to hear about what’s going on in the rest of the world. Try to keep it local as it can be difficult going far from the unit, or if you’re coming to see us at the hospital maybe pick up a coffee or something delicious on the way. Please remember that our schedule might mean we have less than an hour to spare - ask us how long we have until we need to get back and keep an eye on the time. Turning up at the hospital unannounced usually isn’t the best plan, we might be busy with our little one and often there are restrictions on visitors coming into the unit.
- Of course a care parcel or gift is really thoughtful, you might want to include snacks or a few treats, a gentle hand sanitiser, and things to keep us comfortable and occupied for those long days at our baby’s bedside. Vouchers for a nearby café or petrol would be incredible! For our baby, remember to choose items suitable for their gestation or that will help us to create memories of this precious time.
For more gift ideas that the parents will love to receive, head to our blog The Best Gifts for Premature Babies
Please know your kind words, support and any assistance that you can give are truly appreciated – thanks so much for being there for the family.
Posted: Friday 29 January 2021