When Tiffany Brosius was 26 weeks pregnant, her feet began to swell. But the 37-year-old Atlanta mother says she didn’t think too much about it. After all, swelling in pregnancy is common. But then it started to travel up her body, so Brosius went to her provider where she discovered that she was experiencing preeclampsia—dangerously high blood pressure in pregnancy. She was admitted to the hospital, treated and monitored closely. Six days later, when the blood flow to her fetus was compromised by her condition, she delivered her baby by C-section.
That was a scary week, but nothing compared to what was to come. Brosius’s 1-pound, 1-ounce baby would spend the next 180 days in the NICU finishing the development that was supposed to happen in the womb.
Every year, some 500,000 babies are treated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, launching their parents into an intense world of round-the-clock care, big machines and loud beeping sounds, incredible triumphs and, sometimes, unimaginable tragedy. It is a place of small and big victories and setbacks that demand as much time and attention as parents can spare. It is also a logistical and emotional challenge that stretches parents well past their limits.
And that is where you come in. Here are some specific ways you can help a NICU family manage this difficult time.
Help with logistics
Be a point person. Offer to be in charge of one aspect of supporting the family, whether it’s communicating updates to family and friends (via Facebook or text) or being responsible for one of the items below, such as meal planning, fundraising or errands at home. Then see if you can recruit other friends or family members to take on the remaining areas.
Even being a driver is helpful—when Brosius was recovering from her C-section, she wasn’t able to drive to the hospital, so friends took turns dropping her off and picking her up each day.
Create a meal plan
Hospital food is terrible, and nobody has time to cook in the brief moments they are home to shower, rest and change before returning to the hospital. Brosius and her husband developed a schedule that included him picking up casseroles from a local store once a week, popping them in the oven when he got home from work, and then bringing dinner to the hospital for them both to eat. Friends can do the same by:
- Setting up a meal calendar through sites such as Mealtrain and having friends and family volunteer to cook and deliver meals (to the hospital or home) in packaging that can be thrown away.
- Buying a gift certificate to a local meal delivery service or an app such as Grubhub and arranging for a delivery schedule that works for the family.
- Creating an online shopping list of the family’s staples that they (or someone else) can reorder easily.
Share emotional support resources
NICU parents are focused on the wellbeing of their baby, and likely not concerned with their own. Let them know their mental health is important during this process and share these resources:
- Hand to Hold (You can also just give them the organization’s warmline number—855-424-6428—which will connect them with a former NICU family that has been trained in peer support.)
- March of Dimes NICU Family Support
- Support 4 NICU Parent
Put together a care package
Possible items to include:
- A compact mirror. With all of the tubes and warming blankets of the NICU it can sometimes be hard for moms to see their baby (and for their babies to see them) during kangaroo care or feeding times. Having a small compact mirror enables a parent and baby to see each other and connect.
- Chapstick/hand lotion. There is a lot of hand-washing that goes on in the NICU.
- An insulated refillable water bottle to keep parents (especially pumping or breastfeeding moms) hydrated.
- Journal/notebook for parents to write down practical things like feeding schedules and care directions, as well as a place to process emotions.
- A nursing shirt or bras. NICU moms are often encouraged to breastfeed or pump and that can be really challenging to do along with everything else. When another NICU mom gave Brosius a shirt that made pumping easier, it was a game-changer. And because a NICU stay often means an early delivery, many parents haven’t yet gathered newborn supplies, such as nursing bras.
- Onesies and pajamas with snaps (to allow wires in and out) instead of zippers
- NICU baby book. The milestones of the NICU may be different, but they are still milestones worth celebrating, says Kelli Kelley, founder and CEO of Hand to Hold, who had two children in the NICU. “It’s important to find and treasure moments of joy,” Kelley says.
- Ear plugs to block out the noises of the NICU.
- Protein-packed snack foods to have on hand. Kelley says parents are so busy that they frequently forget to eat.
- Gift cards to shops/coffee shops/eateries near the hospital
- A subscription to an audio book service for car rides to and from the hospital.
Ease the financial burden
The financial impact of a NICU stay varies considerably depending on a family’s health insurance, how far they live from the NICU (transportation costs), their employer’s support (do they have to take unpaid leave?), and their child’s particular condition. For some families, a large donation gathering effort such as a GoFundMe page might make the most sense.
Ask the family what kind of support they need and then offer to help organize it. For families that require significant assistance, having another person set up and administer a fundraising page can be easier than asking themselves.
Other ways to offer financial support:
- Give grocery, gas or ride-share gift cards.
- Pitch in with friends to pay for a house cleaning service.
- Take up a cash collection for hospital parking and put it in a clearly-labeled envelope they can keep in their car.
Take care of the home front
For families that have older siblings at home, one of the best ways you can help is with childcare, playdates, and transportation to and from school and after-school activities.
Also, when parents are spending most of their time in the NICU or splitting their time between the hospital and work, there is no time for laundry, cleaning, yard work or pet care. Offer to pitch in or create an online signup so friends and family can pitch in on a rotating basis.
Just be with them
“One of the sweetest things I remember is a friend reading to me when I was pumping,” Kelley says. “It’s very lonely when you are pumping, and you don’t have a baby. You can’t put enough emphasis on the emotional support of people just being with you and you not having to talk about the medical stuff or give every last detail.”
And don’t forget about the dads. Often most of the support can flow to a mom, especially if she is healing from surgery or a medical condition like preeclampsia. Kelley reminds folks: “Reach out to dads. Ask if you can take him out for a burger or a beer and offer some emotional support.”
Keep the support coming after they get home, too.
“Not only are they bringing home a newborn, but they are often bringing home a medically fragile baby,” Kelley says, “so it’s even more important for them to have support when they get home.”
Respect their rules
NICU families are usually sent home with a serious admonishment to keep their homes germ-free. “For a long time, I didn’t want anyone to visit her,” says Brosius, “because I was really scared about germs.”
Kelley’s visitors had to be healthy and up to date on all vaccinations. If a family’s concerns about germs seem outsized to you, trust that they are doing what they need to protect their baby and to feel safe after a scary time.