How to Help a NICU Family

When a couple finds out that a new baby is on the way they imagine a healthy pregnancy, bringing home a full-term baby, and starting their new life as parents. No one imagines delivering a preterm baby and spending time in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) while their child fights for it’s life. Having a preemie in the NICU is one of the most stressful things new parents can face. It can cause feelings of loss (of a normal pregnancy and birth experience), detachment, guilt that you have done something wrong to cause preterm labor, worry about older children at home, stress about work and responsibilities uncared for, fear for the life of your newborn baby, stress on your marriage and other relationships, and so much more. It quickly becomes evident why parents with a child in the NICU need extra support but may not know what to ask for or how to ask for it. 

Six years ago, I gave birth to triplets six weeks before their due date. We also had three older children at home who needed our love and attention as well. One of the babies was born with a congenital heart defect and was transferred to a separate hospital for surgery. We found ourselves with six children in three different locations and struggled to manage basic care of our household and mental health. 

Although no experience is the same, there are some universal ways to help families facing the challenge of having a child in the NICU. We asked Kansas City area NICU parents for realistic suggestions on how to help.

Encouragement and a listening ear

The thing NICU parents need most is a supportive friend to lean on and someone to listen and encourage them. A supportive friend would never trivialize the situation or place blame. It can be hard to know the right thing to say, when this happens, try simply listening to their concerns and feelings and offering encouragement wherever possible. A simple text saying “I’m thinking of you.” can really lift a parent’s spirits on a rough day. “The texts and messages of support were always appreciated, but please know that if I don’t respond, I’m not ignoring you. My mental energy is just somewhere else at the moment.” says Olathe, KS mom, Jessica Pelski.

Provide basic needs

Maintaining basic functions in a household can become a burden when you are preoccupied with your baby’s health while also recovering from birth. One of the best and easiest ways to help a NICU family is to provide a meal or a gift card that can help them focus on the baby instead of planning, shopping, or cooking meals. “Gift cards for the restaurants near the NICU allowed us to have a short break and eat a meal before returning to the NICU.” said Kansas City, MO mom Erin Dickerson. 

Many families with babies in the NICU are from towns outside of the city the NICU is located. They may be forced to miss work and spend a lot of money on gas and eating out. “Gift cards were our biggest help.” says Cindy Price. The gift cards could be used for food, gas, or other items needed.” There are other practical things that can be offered in a time of need such as house cleaning, mowing the lawn, errands, or taking care of the pets so parents can focus on their newborn. “My friends arranged to have my house deep cleaned before the baby came home.” said Lyndsey Gruber-Chatfield from Liberty, MO. “After 98 days in the NICU things got a little disorderly at home and it was so nice to have someone take care of that for me.”

Help with other children

One of the most challenging parts of having a baby in the NICU is feeling guilty about not having time or energy to focus on the other children at home. Friends and family can help with this by offering to take the older kids for a few hours so mom and dad can spend time in the NICU with the baby. Offering to carpool, pick the older children up on your way to the park, or sending a small gift to the older child to let them know they are special are other great ways to help and show you care. 

Our triplets are now almost six years old and are preparing to start kindergarten this fall. They are caught up to their peers and it is hard to imagine they were born early and struggled through their first few weeks in the NICU. However, when you are in the middle of the NICU experience it is challenging to see beyond the current circumstances. The best thing friends and family can do is to support them, listen when needed, and help wherever you can. The NICU stage will pass, but while they are going through it, families need as much support as possible.

What to Say to a NICU Parent

It can be hard to know what to say to encourage a friend who has a child in the NICU. You can start by using one of the phrases below. Then just listen and follow their lead.

  • “How are you doing?” or “How is your partner doing?”
  • “How is your baby doing?”
  • “Do you need help with your older kids?”
  • “You are a good mom/dad.”
  • “You are doing the best you can.”
  • “It’s okay to feel scared/upset/angry/sad.”
  • “Can I bring you something to eat or drink?”
  • “Can I see pictures of the baby?”
  • “Do you want to talk about it?”
  • “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”
  • “Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “I would like to help you by ______ (mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, running errands, making dinner, picking the kids up from school, etc)”
  • “I will be thinking of you/I will pray for you.”
  • “This is not your fault.”