N. I. C. U. Four unassuming letters that put together hold a lot of weight.
Experiencing a NICU stay for any reason is traumatic. 6 day. 6 weeks. 6 months. The time frame doesn’t matter. It still shakes you. And, even after it ends, it still likes to creep up from time to time and remind you of what you lost, what you grieved.
My only daughter was born 6 weeks early because my water had ruptured. As someone who walked through a 31-day stay in the NICU, I have been on the side of helplessness. The side of vulnerability and need.
Oftentimes it’s hard to know how to help families walking through this reality.
Do I send flowers?
Should I visit after birth?
Should I cook a meal or send a gift card?
I wanted to offer a few “do’s and don’ts” for anyone wondering how they can be helpful during such a painful season.
Before I share, please keep these things in mind:
Every mom is different.
Every reason for a NICU stay is different.
Every hospital is different.
Every birth experience is different.
And, every baby is different.
I can only speak from my own experience, and from what I’ve learned from others who walked alongside us.
WHAT TO ASK
DON’T ask when they’re going home.
Just don’t. This is probably the most-asked question, yet it’s the one parents have the least ability to answer. A NICU stay is a rollercoaster experience. It’s a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of process. Good news one day doesn’t necessarily mean one step closer to going home.
DO ask for updates from the doctor.
While this journey includes many unknowns, doctors make their rounds daily and update the patients’ charts. These reports include any changes they will make and a progress report of sorts. Fielding questions about a discharge timeframe can be a painful reminder that you still don’t know when you will be able to bring your baby home. Instead, consider asking about updates from their neonatologists, nurses and PT/OT therapists.
WHAT TO SAY (OR NOT SAY)
DON’T tell them everything will be okay.
This is really the last thing any NICU parent wants to hear. A comment like this, while meant to encourage and lift spirits, can do the exact opposite. NICU parents are grieving the loss of all they had expected and imagined surrounding the birth of their child. And, truthfully, in that moment, not much feels “okay.”
DO sit with them in their pain.
When we walk through difficult seasons, we feel so out of control. Sometimes what we actually need is for someone to come alongside us and say, “Wow, this must be really hard.” Encouraging words are wonderful and needed. But, there is something truly beautiful about meeting someone in their pain and letting them know that you see them.
WHEN TO VISIT
DON’T show up unannounced.
Days spent in the NICU are long, and hard, and emotional. Some days are better than others. If a nurse notifies a family that they have an unexpected visitor in the lobby, they may be perfectly fine and ready to chat. But they may not. The baby might be eating or fussy. The mother might be pumping or emotional. If they’re lucky, they may be trying to breastfeed or having skin-to-skin time.
DO ask before you visit.
Sending a quick text or making a phone call to ask about a good time to visit goes a long way. The parents know their baby’s schedule, as well as the hospital visiting hours. They’ll be able to let you know when it’s a good time to visit. And, don’t be surprised if you get a last-minute text saying “today isn’t a good day.” Good days can turn into not-good days in an instant. Be understanding and ready to reschedule.
HOW TO HELP
DON’T say, “Let me know if you need anything.”
At first read, this may seem like more of a “do” than a “don’t.” I think this is something we’ve gotten used to saying a lot–I am guilty of saying this, too. And, while we mean well when we say it, how often do we actually get reached out to? Not a lot, right? Truthfully, NICU families are in endless need. As someone who walked through this, I had to learn to be incredibly vulnerable in asking for help and in taking up friends and family on their offers. But, the most helpful reach-outs were from people who asked about helping in a tangible way.
DO serve them in specific and tangible way.
Purchase a gift card to a restaurant close to the hospital. Offer to cut their grass, or better yet, just go do it. Tell them you’d like to bring them a meal and ask which night works best. Ask if there’s anything you can pick up for them from the drug store. When you’re in the NICU, life is far from normal. So, normal and simple tasks get put on the back burner. It’s a lot harder to find time for laundry and lawn care. It’s more difficult to grocery shop and cook. Reaching out to help in a specific way is truly appreciated.
Having a baby stay in the NICU is something that never would have crossed our minds, until it became our reality. We were thrown into it with no time to plan or prepare (not that you can ever really prepare for that).
I hope this article sheds a little light into life in the NICU and what might be helpful to a family walking this incredibly difficult journey.