When our son, James, was born prematurely at 30 weeks gestation, nothing could have prepared us for the hurricane that was about to tear full speed through our lives.
It’s a different world that cannot be understood until experienced. It’s of course then no surprise that people have no idea how to help or even behave if someone they know has a baby in NICU.
As someone who has been there please don’t, let your lack of understanding stop you from reaching out and showing your support. As a veteran of the trenches myself I hope these tips will assist you in supporting them whilst also respecting their space at such an emotional and delicate time.
Firstly, say congratulations.
This family have welcomed their precious new baby into the world, just like anybody else. It should be celebrated. But also acknowledge the difficult journey ahead. When James was born, I remember receiving messages such as ‘Yay, this is such exciting news’. And it was, but mostly it was terrifying. Finish your congratulations with a simple ‘all our love for the road ahead, we will be thinking of you’. This shows you understand it’s going to be tough and you’ll be there for the journey.
Don’t go visiting without an invitation, even if you are close to the family.
Instead, express that you would love to visit when they are ready. Truthfully, be prepared that this time could actually be weeks or even months into the future. Don’t take it personally. There were days when I craved company and days when I didn’t even want to see my Mum. NICU is overwhelming enough as it is without trying to run a schedule of visitors.
Send card and gifts, but be mindful of what you choose.
In those first few weeks, this family is probably only going home to sleep. Flowers are lovely, but their beauty will most likely go to waste. Think outside the square. Journals are an excellent idea and one of the best gifts we received. Scrapbooks, baby footprint kits, premature baby clothes, a keepsake box, baby story books…be creative with what a family in for the long haul might appreciate but be sure to be appropriate. (Some NICU also won’t allow flowers at all so make a call to check before sending!)
Don’t just offer to help, actually do something! And don’t stop after a week.
Drop off home cooked meals or easy lunches to their house in a cooler bag. I have to admit this seemed so small but was easily the biggest help of all. Feed their animals, or offer to pet-sit for a while. Arrange to watch their toddler for a few hours. Collect their mail. Water their plants. Drop off some milk and bread. It might take an hour of your time but it will give them an extra hour with their little bundle. Anything you can see to make their life easier – offer it, do it.
Offer your home if you live close to the hospital.
If you are able to spare a bed to give the family a break from driving hours a day, do it. Our beautiful friends who lived close to the hospital constantly offered to have us overnight, and when we stayed we always left feeling recharged. They cooked, they gave up their bed, they checked how we were doing emotionally, they left little gifts for James and they didn’t ask for one thing in return. This was a kindness we will never forget!
Don’t expect the family to ‘be around’ in the following few months.
Your friend is now in a serious relationship with the hospital and will be missing in action. But don’t disappear. Keep texting and sending love even if you aren’t getting much in return. If you miss them, organise a coffee at Hudson’s on the ground floor of the hospital. But let the family decide what they are up for and when. Don’t make this time about you; know that when things change, your friendship will bloom once again.
Gather support from the community.
If you own a local business, ask customers to spare some change to go towards something for the family (petrol, take away food, coffee, parking – it all adds up). Ask the local school to print a small piece of support in their newsletter. I remember on a particularly tough day my Mum casually mentioned to me that her church had prayed for us during a service, and it meant far more to me than she ever intended. Whatever you know will touch or help the family try to arrange it. If you’re not sure how your intentions may sit boundary wise there is no harm in asking first!
And if you do get the opportunity to visit this amazing place where miracles happen every day, be sensitive and compassionate.
Don’t ask when the parents will get to take their baby home. Don’t ask when you will get a cuddle. Don’t offer unnecessary advice. Don’t make comparisons. Don’t tell them anything you read on Google! Instead, listen and show interest in the baby’s progress. Focus on how far they’ve come. Admire just how precious the baby is. Compliment the amazing team of doctors, nurses and midwives. Praise the parents for their strength and bravery.
And always leave NICU remembering this: The people who work here are heroes.
The families who spend their days here are soldiers. And the babies who stay here are true fighters. They are the embodiment of perseverance and strength. I hope you leave with a little perspective, and a reminder to say thank you every day, for you are truly blessed.