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Having a preterm baby is…. overwhelming, emotional, scary, and stressful. Along with probably 100 other things. A lot of times having a preemie means a NICU stay. This can range from a few days to a few weeks to a few months. No matter how long your baby is in the NICU it doesn’t get any easier. As a NICU mom, I knew my friends and family wanted to help, but didn’t know how. I Was also too emotionally drained and focused on my own family to tell them how.
So here I will outline 7 things that friends and family can do to help the family of a preterm baby.
1. Bring food or a gift card for food without asking them if they need it.
They need it. They are running back and forth to the hospital, spending as much time as they can with their new baby. Maybe they are even dividing their time between the hospital and another child at home. It’s possible that some days they forget to eat, or that they are hitting up the pizza place and drive-thru every night to make sure their other children eat. There’s a good chance that they are spending way more than their budget allows on food that is fast and easy.
2. Offer to watch their other children, and don’t let them say no.
Don’t ask “do you want me to watch your kids?” Say “I want to watch your kids.” Don’t add “so you can…..” let them decide what to do with the free time you are giving them. Most likely they will go to the hospital, or finish up the chores that have been ignored around the house, or any of the other thousand things that have been piling up. Maybe they will even allow themselves a much needed nap. Let them use the time for what they need.
3. Ask them about when/how they want to celebrate the birth of their baby, or if they want/plan to.
Then respect their wishes. Some parents need the validation that their child is here in this world now, and want to celebrate with a party or baby shower (that maybe was missed because the baby was early). This can also make it feel more real, even though baby is not home yet, and give them a break from the hospital. Some parents need to hold off on celebrating because they want to make sure baby is home and doing well before they do. Either decision is valid, so make sure to respect it. Also, remember it is about them and their wishes. Not matter your relationship to the child, if you are not the parent, it is not your decision.
4. Remember that they are more than their preemie.
My husband and I closed off from some of our friends while our daughter was in the NICU, because every time we talked to them, they wanted to talk strictly about how she was doing. We were living it daily and just trying to get through each day, we didn’t want to talk about it. We were happy to update if there were updates to give, but the people we talked to most were the ones that talked to us about everything except our preemie. It was a bit of a relief from the constant thoughts in our head.
While this is true for us, some people want to talk about it. If you aren’t sure which camp your loved ones fall into, it’s ok to ask if they want to talk.
5. Don’t ask when the baby is coming home.
Believe me, when they know they will shout it from the rooftops. It is an extremely exciting day when you find out your baby is going to be coming home. You also usually only find out a day or two before it happens. Even when they tell you a day, it’s an expected day and if anything changes with your baby, they may have to stay.
Babies in the NICU are on their own schedule. There are certain milestones that need to be hit before they can go home and there is no telling when they will hit them. There’s no estimated time frame, it’s not solely based on weight or how they are breathing or how they are eating. It’s a combination of things, and it’s different for every baby.
The parents are probably already on edge thinking about it. Or, trying not to think about it. They also want to know when their baby is coming home. They will let you know when they know.
6. Don’t try to comfort with any statement starting with “at least…”
No “At least you can sleep through the night” because they probably aren’t. No “at least you didn’t have to be super pregnant” because they would rather be super pregnant. The worst pregnancy symptoms are better than watching your baby fight for their life in the NICU. No “at least you have some time to recover from your c-section” or “at least you get to see your baby sooner”
Pretty much, if it starts with “at least” don’t say it.
7. Be OK with not seeing them for awhile.
Especially if there is another child at home, realize that it will be difficult for them to find time to visit. Not much is more important than time with their children at this moment. Add into that things like eating, laundry, work and sleep, and there is no time left. In fact to me it always felt like negative time. I had way more to do than I had time, and that’s not including visiting with anyone who doesn’t normally reside in my home. Being at the NICU and being with my 3 year old and husband were tops, and if I made time for you, I was taking my very limited time away from one of them.
Be OK with them disappearing for a bit. Send a text, leave a voicemail (they may or may not call back… give them some slack). Do not make them feel bad for not clearing time. They will come back around when baby is home and things calm down. (This will not be right away. Give them as much time as they need)
Nothing is normal when your child is not home with you,
even more so when your child is in the hospital. Possibly very sick. The best thing you can do for the family of a premature baby in the NICU, is be understanding that they are going through a very difficult time. Work with them, be supportive, and don’t expect them to be or act in any particular way.