Three of our five kids were NICU babies. That’s 60%. And while we were lucky to never stay longer than three weeks, those NICU days still stand out as some of the hardest, most stressful days of my life.
When you picture having your baby, you imagine cuddling in the hospital room, taking a zillion pictures, introducing your new little one to family and friends. For NICU moms, that storybook hospital stay is quickly interrupted, replaced by extra wires, tubes, and monitors. You’re thrown into the deep end of a pool you didn’t ask to swim in, forced to learn a different language and how to advocate for your child. Worst of all, you are separated. This being who has been a part of you for nine months is no longer within reach. Being discharged and leaving your baby behind at the hospital is gut wrenching.
Our twins were born at 34 weeks at 3 pounds 13 ounces and 4 pounds 15 ounces. They stayed in the NICU for three weeks as they learned to eat, breathe, grow, and maintain their body temperature. We held Barnes for the first time when he was four days old, and Frances at eight days old. Those eight days were excruciating.
Ellis was born via c-section at 38 weeks. He was scheduled for 39 weeks, but I had a broken rib and honestly couldn’t take the pain an extra week. When he came out, he seemed perfect, but that night he ended up in the NICU on a roller coaster journey due to a pneumothorax (an air leak in his lung). His 7 days in the NICU were a different kind of difficult than our days with the twins. For one, we had three very young children to take care of at home. Also, he was there due to an actual medical condition rather than just prematurity, which was honestly much scarier. I will never forget the morning that the neonatologist told us that he was the sickest baby on the unit. We were not allowed to touch him or to even talk to him, as any stimulation could upset his condition, and there was a chest tube kit by his bed constantly at the ready.
Now Barnes, Frances and Ellis are all thriving, perfectly healthy children, and we couldn’t be more thankful. We are forever grateful for the care they received, and so glad they were born in a time where medicine could give them the extra boost they needed in their earliest days. We are also mindful that many families’ NICU days don’t have such a happy ending.
Having had two different NICU experiences, I learned a little about what was and wasn’t helpful. If you have a loved one with a child in the NICU, I hope this short list can help you support them.
- Remind the mom that it is not her fault. So many NICU moms deal with extraordinary guilt. We feel like we could have kept the baby in longer or done something different in pregnancy that would have lead to a better result. Speaking truth into a NICU mom’s life and encouraging her to release her guilt is a huge gift.
- Give the mom (and dad) grace. A NICU mom has just been through labor, experienced a million hormone changes, is probably engorged, and has had her baby removed from her care. Expect her to be a little difficult, and offer her grace upon grace upon grace.
- Do not, under any circumstances, try to point out the benefits of the NICU. I still remember people saying things like “at least you can sleep as you recover” or “at least the NICU will get them on a schedule.” These comments are definitely not helpful.
- If the family has older children, offer to help with them. Balancing the desire to be at your baby’s side with the needs of your other children is tough. Offer to take the big kids to the park or out for ice cream and give the parents a guilt-free afternoon with their newborn.
- Give them gift cards. Meals are wonderful, but when your baby is in the NICU your schedule gets super whacky. Knowing that you need to be home to receive food or get it out of a cooler in time can actually add stress. You know what doesn’t add stress? Gift cards. Think about places near the hospital or near their home where they can swing by and grab a snack. Chances are they are putting their physical needs last, so a gift card to a place with a drive through (or delivery) can be a Godsend.
- Don’t be afraid to offer to visit. The thought of visiting a NICU can be intimidating, but sometimes NICU parents could really use a friend to chat with. Our days with the twins were long and quiet, and I still remember the friends who came to just sit with us. We even had two friends drive 3 hours to meet our babies, knowing they couldn’t hold them yet! Having someone bear that weight with you for even a few minutes is priceless.