Because my son Sam aspirated meconium into his lungs when he was born, he was transported to a NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) across town within hours of his birth. My husband had to be strong for our whole family while also dealing with stressful work issues. My other children were upset and confused. As for me, my hormones were a mess, and I was overwhelmed with learning the lay of the NICU land while also taking care of things at home… and recovering from childbirth. I was exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally.
Parents can generally expect to bring home a baby within a few days of birth and instead may find themselves making a daily trek to a hospital NICU for months on end. The unexpectedness of having a baby in the NICU can put strain on a marriage, on a job, on family and on friendships. Thankfully, there are so many ways you can jump in and help to be a godsend to a family facing this challenge.
1. Start by signing up for a donor-supported service called www.carecalendar.org. You collect basic information from the parents (e.g. meal, childcare, housework, yardwork and errand needs), then let their loved ones sign up to help out. Instead of the parents spending hours giving updates, it’s all on the Care Calendar. Tactfully notify well-wishers on the Care Calendar that it’s not a good idea to expect a long visit when they drop off a meal for the new parents, either before or immediately after their baby comes home. If the parents live far from the hospital, you might use the Care Calendar to try to raise some money to pay for a hotel for a few nights.
2. Parents might be uncomfortable at first with even the closest of friends and family offering to do their laundry and clean their home, but they’ll get over it. I didn’t care who saw my laundry or where my pots and pans ended up as long as I could focus on my kids and my NICU baby. Note: If you see that their lawn is 14 inches tall, go ahead and mow it!
3. If the parents don’t have other children at home, think about doing simple things for them like picking up postage stamps, grabbing milk or caring for their pet. This means more time and energy the parents can spend on their new baby.
4. Remember that meals do not have to be homemade! A family would enjoy a takeout meal from the local Chinese restaurant or pizza joint just as much as a homemade casserole. Frozen lasagna, bagged salad and packaged cookies are still food! When you bring a meal, also bring paper products like cups, napkins, plates and bowls. Not having to do dishes lets the parents breathe and possibly even relax a little.
5. If the parents do have other kids, realize that those kids are also affected by the stressful situation. Offer to pick up the kids and have them over to your house to play or take them to a park or a restaurant with a play area so the parents can get some sleep. Get them out of the house and their minds off the fact that their parents are gone more than usual. Offer to babysit at their house if they prefer. For health reasons, if one twin is released before the other, the first twin is not allowed back in the NICU. In this case, the parents will need someone to babysit while they visit the twin still in the NICU.
6. Realize that a NICU visitor list is extremely limited, and that the parents are not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings by not getting their name on the list. Because security has to be tight and health concerns are paramount, you can’t drop in to the NICU anytime to see the new baby.
7. Offer to clean out the car the baby will be coming home in. You might even offer to get the carseat professionally installed if this is their first baby.
8. Offer to bring something comforting or important from home to the NICU like messages, paperwork, favorite clothing or pillows.
9. Offer to return phone calls, email photos of the baby and give updates to family, friends and neighbors who may be asking for information.
10. Ask the parents if they might benefit from a NICU break. Offer to meet them at the hospital cafeteria for lunch and adult conversation or at a nearby restaurant or park.
11. Bring magazines for the parents to read while they are at the NICU holding their sleeping baby or keeping vigil by the incubator. Also, a snack basket of fruit, packaged crackers, trail mix, juice boxes and cookies keeps the parents from blowing time and money at the hospital vending machines.
12. If both parents need to go back to work before their baby is released, ask if they would mind putting you on the visitor list so you can go visit and rock their baby while they are working.
Kerrie overshares about her life as the mom of five little ones at www.thekerrieshow.com.
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