How to Support a Family With a Baby in the NICU

posted: 05/03/16
by: Katie Morton
mother holding a premature baby at Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

When a baby is born prematurely or has medical complications, he or she may have to spend time in the hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Depending on a variety of health factors, the baby may be in the NICU for weeks, or even months.

Though it's in the baby's best interests to spend as much time in the NICU as he or she needs, it's also excruciating for new parents. And it's hard to care for yourself when you're helplessly watching your baby struggle with serious health issues. As a friend or family member, you probably want to help, but you may not know what to say or do. As someone who has experienced this first-hand, here are practical ideas for offering your support.

Prepare healthy food

With the baby in the hospital and the parents going back and forth, time and energy are scarce. One of the first things to fall by the wayside is healthy meal prep. Hospital food wears thin quickly and the demands of caring for the baby in the NICU means that grocery shopping and cooking can become a challenge.

One of the best gifts you can give a family whose baby is in the NICU is offering to provide meals for them. The site Meal Train makes it easy to organize if others want to help, so you can involve the parents' employers, family, or neighborhood in the process.

Help with chores

When the baby is in the NICU, many parents report that everything else falls apart. Lend a set of helping hands so the family doesn't feel like their lives are in disarray while they're spending hours at the hospital.

Some ideas for what to offer to help with:

  • Yard work
  • Pet care
  • Taking care of miscellaneous errands
  • Housecleaning
  • Sorting mail
  • Taking out the trash or recycling

Take care of Fluffy

Sadly, the fur kids are often neglected during this time since their parents are so focused on the new baby. If the family has pets, and you're an animal lover, you can offer to stop by their home for feeding, walking, and playtime. Or, if the baby will be in the hospital for several weeks, you can even offer to host the pets in your home.

Knowing the fur children are receiving some attention during this tough time will help the parents sleep easier at night.

Offer babysitting services

One of the toughest things for new parents with a baby in the NICU is caring for other children at home. Older siblings may feel as though all the focus is on the baby and become resentful.

You can offer to do something fun with the kids, like take them out for a movie night. Or you can help with homework or give rides to and from school and sports. All of these things will take some of the burden off the family so they can focus on the baby.

Emily's Smile Boxes is a fantastic organization, which puts together activity and toy boxes for kids with sick siblings. These boxes can keep kids occupied and happy if they're in the NICU waiting room.

Start a personal taxi service

The stress of commuting to and from the hospital can wear parents down, especially when they're sleep-deprived. You can offer to drive them back and forth to visit the baby or drive them to other appointments as needed.

If the mom had a tough delivery or a C-section, then driving may be prohibited for a certain amount of time. Offering to play chauffeur can be incredibly helpful.

Be a family spokesperson

Part of having a baby in the NICU involves daily reports from many different doctors and the emotional roller coaster that goes along with that. Keeping family and friends in the loop can take some of the burden off answering phone calls and text messages.

Offer to start an email distribution list to keep everyone updated on the baby's progress. Caring bridge is a terrific website to journal the baby's updates, and even collect donations if the family feels that's appropriate. Donations can be used toward medical bills for the baby, because even with health insurance, the costs of having an extended stay in the NICU can be staggering.

Just be there

We know this is obvious, but your presence alone can be immensely important. Having a baby in the NICU is extraordinarily stressful for the parents -- they're grappling with exhaustion, stress, overwhelming worry, and concern for the future. One of the best gifts you can give them is an ear and your physical presence.

Just be there in that moment. Hold their hands. Listen if they want to talk, or be quiet if they don't. Just knowing that they have support from family and friends can make this scary time more manageable.

However you choose to support a family whose baby in the NICU, know that they'll appreciate it. Every caring gesture during this hard time makes their day-to-day focus on the baby that much easier for them.