How to help your friend who has a baby in NICU
A family I know through mutual friends and local sport recently had triplets at just 24 weeks. As soon as I heard, my heart ached for them with a familiar pain that only few people know. I was instantly reminded of just how tough it was in those first few weeks when a hurricane tore through our life at full speed. Nothing could prepare us. The days were long, unpredictable and utterly draining. We finished each day at an ungodly hour with zero energy left, and we went to bed knowing we would have to wake up in a few hours and do it all again. And then I began remembering the little things that helped us survive this very scary time…those tiny words that were actually huge to us, those encouraging hugs that pushed us a little further forward, and those thoughtful gifts which reminded us we weren’t alone. Despite all this, I knew the road ahead for this family would somehow be even more challenging than I could ever comprehend. I had to help.
Before James, I would have had no idea where to start or even how to behave if someone I knew had a baby in NICU. It’s a different world that cannot be understood until experienced. And it’s certainly not your typical ‘congratulations on your baby’ experience where you visit just days later and get squishy cuddles and a cup of tea. In fact, you don’t even know whether you should be happy or sad. But this shouldn’t stop you from reaching out and showing your support. I’m hoping this blog will help you find a way to be there for your friends or family while also respecting their space at such an emotional and delicate time.
Firstly, say congratulations. This family has just 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 aren’t disregarding the frightening circumstances and you understand it’s going to be tough.
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. And be prepared that this could 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. These babies are literally fighting to survive, and their families are fighting to hold it together. They don’t need any added stress.
Send card and gifts, but be mindful. In those first few weeks after Mum is discharged from the postnatal ward, 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. Offer to print off some of the many photos they have taken and create an album. Organise a birth announcement in the paper. Scrapbooks, baby footprint kits, premature baby clothes, a keepsake box, baby story books…be creative but appropriate. And remember…NICU isn’t the ideal place for clutter, so send gifts to the family home if you can.
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 – don’t expect them to be home to put it in the fridge! I have to admit this was easily the biggest help of all. Tell the family to leave their washing in a bag at the front door and return it clean, folded and ready to wear. Pay for a cleaner to come to their house, and ask for a spare key so you can let them in. While you’re there, tidy up all the gifts and cards which have been left sprawled across their lounge room floor. I’ll never forget when we came home one night from hospital and there were piles of shit everywhere! Feed their animals, or offer to pet-sit for a while. Arrange to go to the hospital and take their toddler for a few hours. Even better, take them for the day. 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 fighter.
Offer your home if you live close to the hospital. It doesn’t mean you have to accommodate them and their 2 children for 3 months, but if you are able to spare a night here and there to give them a break from driving hours a day, do it. Be inconvenienced and don’t expect anything in return…help just because you can. Our beautiful friends who lived 5 minutes from the hospital constantly offered to have us overnight, and when we stayed we always left feeling recharged. They cooked for us, they gave up their bed, they checked how we were doing emotionally, they left little gifts for James, and they gave us leftovers. We even had a laugh! And they didn’t ask for one thing in return.
Don’t expect the family to ‘be around’ in the following few months. If you had dinner plans, they probably won’t be there. Your friend is now in a relationship with the hospital and will be missing in action. But don’t you disappear. In fact, stick around. Keep texting and sending love even if you aren’t getting much in return. If you miss them, your best bet is organising a coffee at Hudson’s on the ground floor of the hospital. In saying that, Scott and I did attend our good friend’s wedding about a week after James was born. It was difficult, there were tears, and I felt guilty the entire time, but the fresh air and normality (with the exception of breast pumping between ceremony and reception!) were much needed. Let the family decide what they are up for and when. Don’t force it.
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). Inspire the players in your local netball club to wear a coloured ribbon in their hair in honour of the family, and forward on a photo with a personal message. 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. The more people are aware, the more they will rally around the family.
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 be able to have a cuddle. Don’t offer unnecessary advice. Don’t dwell on upsetting obstacles unless prompted by the parents. Don’t make comparisons. Instead, listen and show interest in the baby’s progress. Focus on how far they’ve come. Admire just how precious their baby is. Compliment the amazing team of doctors, nurses and midwives in the NICU. 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.