10 Tips on How to Support a Family with a Baby in the NICU

Having a baby in the NICU is a stressful time for many new parents. Here are some ways to best support a family with a new baby needing extra care. But first, a story from a NICU mom.

I let myself float back to the hospital halls I used to waddle down as a brand new mom to a medically fragile baby.

While much of it has gone fuzzy, here’s what I can still recall: the sanitary smells and the symphonic dings of various monitors throughout the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

I can still feel the way adrenaline would rush through me and how I couldn’t wash my hands fast enough so I could enter the NICU to greet our precious girl; she’d usually be waiting quietly in her nest of various life-saving tubes.

NICU sign in hospital with arrow pointing left

I can still blurrily picture the faces of the nurses and doctors who went out of their way to be gentle and kind as we prepared for surgeries, tests, and a baby who would come home on oxygen and with a feeding tube.

I’ll never forget the repetitive sound of all the breast pumps extracting milk from the other tired moms in the pumping room. Those first five weeks we were in the hospital with our daughter hold many memories.

I can also remember the meals dropped off, the people who drove hours to hug us and be present if we needed them.

I can recall the relief of someone else figuring out our next meal and saying, “It’s okay to take a nap. I can be with her.” The text messages simply reminding us that we weren’t forgotten still boast their imprint of love over our family. 

Back then, we were so in it that I couldn’t have told you what I needed day to day.

The days disappeared between the effort of getting to the hospital, pumping multiple times a day, and trying to understand everything the doctors were telling us, never mind eating dinner or finding a clean pair of underwear.

The people who bypassed the emptiness of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” and actually just showed up are the ones that made those days doable. I can’t remember how I stayed fed or clothed aside from the fact that I know people jumped in.

baby recovering in the NICU

How to support a family with a NICU baby

Now that I’ve had a few years to work through those trying NICU days, I can reflect with perspective on what was helpful.

My best advice: don’t overthink it. If you think there’s a chance what you have to offer might be helpful, it likely will be.

Katelynn Robertson

If you are expecting a little one who you know will require some extra support, passing on some of these ideas to your close friends and family can be helpful for you all to prepare for what is coming.

If you are someone who wants to support a family who has a little one in the NICU or who has just brought home a newborn with medical needs, first of all, thank you for wanting to help.

Read next: Navigating the Anxiety of Having Your Baby in the NICU

Ways to offer tangible support

1. Access to meals and snacks

Gift cards for restaurants near the hospital, easy cash e-transfers, and best of all, ready-made meals (keeping Covid safety in mind) are so helpful for supporting parents with a baby in the NICU.

Not surprisingly, breakfast tends to be a forgotten meal and can be one of the most stressful parts of the day. When parents wake up, they want to get back to the hospital to check on the baby, and doctors usually round on patients in the morning. It can be stressful juggling tending to breakfast without missing the important conversations when the doctor is available.

Other tangible gifts like magazines, games, or snack foods can help pass the time, as hospital admissions usually come with a lot of waiting. A simple self-care package for mom or a healthy snack box can be helpful (and greatly appreciated) too.

2. Invite a sense of familiarity

Print photos of the family for the baby’s hospital room/bedside. Having these reminders of loved ones can make a very isolating experience feel a bit less lonely.

Some hospitals do not have the capacity for parents to stay overnight; it can feel a little less difficult for parents to leave their baby at the hospital knowing a photo of them or some other comforting item from home is near the baby’s isolette.

3. Offer babysitting

If the family has other kids, rally the troops to coordinate a child-minding schedule. Offer the grandparents who may be watching the siblings a break. 

4. Suggest specific errands

In my experience, we didn’t buy much before the baby’s arrival because we were so unsure of whether we would be coming home with a little one at all.

Ask the family if there is anything you can pick up for them and offer a few clear and concise suggestions:

  • “Can I do a load of laundry for you and deliver it back to the hospital?”
  • “Can I pick up a car seat for you?”
  • “I can print the medical tax forms for you and mail them.”
  • “Here! I noticed you were in a lot of pain when sitting, so I picked up a perineal cushion for you to try.”

5. Communicating with others

Having someone else who takes on all the well-intentioned questions/requests for updates about the baby is huge. In my experience, my mom messaged the family and requested that all questions be directed to her, and it was so helpful to have that mental reprieve. It’s okay to have boundaries around who and how you update folks on your baby’s status.

6. Consider a postpartum doula

If you can’t provide in-person support because of physical distance, or if the family needs more hands on deck, consider hiring or gifting money towards a postpartum doula.

These trained support people can step in with those little tasks like meal prep, sibling care, groceries, picking up postpartum needs like a nursing bra, etc., so that parents can concentrate on bonding and being there with their baby.

paper grocery bag on kitchen counter with bread and kale

Ways to offer emotional support

7. A handwritten note

Don’t underestimate the impact of a simple handwritten note.

Whether you find a beautiful card (I love Emily McDowell’s empathy cards) or write a little letter, sometimes having others’ words to savor is really special when new parents have been thrown into the deep end.

Especially nowadays, when many hospitals have restrictions on visitors, writing a heartfelt note is one way of still showing up even if you can’t physically be there.

8. An encouraging text

If you send a text to a new parent with a baby in the NICU, add something like “No response required” or “NRR” at the end of your message.

A family friend often sent me encouraging texts with “NRR” at the end. It was nice and reassuring knowing she didn’t expect anything back from me and just wanted me to know I was on her mind.

9. Support the partner

Don’t forget the partner/dad.

Both partners are experiencing this. Don’t neglect to reach out to the partner who didn’t birth the baby. They need love and attention and to know they’re supported too.

10. Consider your wording

This one is important. Parents who are going through the unimaginable with a little one are frequently inundated with accolades about their strength and perseverance.

Of course, it does take strength to go through these experiences, but all the talk about how amazing the parents are can feel somewhat belittling to the lived experience of being filled with fear and completely out of one’s comfort zone.

Parents need to feel seen; they can acknowledge that they were rockstars later once their baby is home.

Katelynn Robertson

I often heard things like, “You’re so strong/brave/amazing” or “I don’t know how you do it.” The truth is you would do it too if you were in these parents’ shoes.

Be careful not to place pressure on the family that looking strong is valued by others.

The urge to comfort and encourage them is not wrong, but try reframing your awe in one of these ways:

  • “You must be feeling so many things; I want you to know that’s okay.”
  • “I can imagine there must be so many ups and downs to this experience.”
  • “If you want a safe person to listen, please know I’m available to talk if you’d like.”

There’s a reason why Brene Brown’s video on Empathy vs. Sympathy has over 16 million views: empathy is the invisible set of wings that carries us through difficult experiences.

two male friends hugging

Final thoughts on supporting a NICU baby

If your baby is in the NICU

If you are the parent of a little one in the NICU or who will be, your feelings about this experience are valid. I hope you feel emboldened to ask even one person for something that you need or want.

It can feel like everything is about what the baby is going through, but the truth is you are going through this experience, too and how you feel about it matters.

If you’re supporting a family with a baby in the NICU

If you support a family experiencing medical challenges with their infant, thank you for being there and showing up.

In all likelihood, this experience is affecting you as well, and it’s good to acknowledge that to your own support people (reminder: not to the baby’s parents, please! They are juggling enough).

It’s okay to make mistakes along the way or say the wrong thing—own it and move forward.

You may never know the full impact of your support, and you may not be thanked all that formally. Thank you for showing up anyway.

Supported families have better outcomes for both the baby and the parents; let it be enough to know that you are playing a part in that. Hear it from me; someone who has been there: you are so very appreciated.

Katelynn Robertson

Postpartum Doula, Founder of Hearten Doula Services

As a postpartum doula, Katelynn provides hands-on, practical help as parents recover physically and emotionally from birth, figure out feeding, and adjust to daily life with a new baby. Katelynn has a special place in her heart for families of babies with medical needs/chromosomal differences and hopes to instill confidence and courage in the parents she works with. When Katelynn is not working, she loves baking, thrifting, and reading in the sunshine.

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