How to Support Someone with A Baby in the NICU

Childbirth is a wonderful, whirlwind, joyful time, but when a mother gives birth to a premature baby, she can feel scared, overwhelmed and isolated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) with her little one. As friends and family, it's important to provide support during this challenging time. Here are some ways you can support your loved ones with a baby in the NICU.

Offer Rides to the Hospital

Something as simple as offering a ride to and from the hospital is a great way to help and show up for your loved one. 

Show up for the ride a bit earlier than they asked, have a coffee or other comfort beverage ready and some food or snacks.

While driving them, don't expect any lively conversation. Sometimes it is best to give someone space to talk or not talk.

If a ride is not a possibility, gas cards are a great, practical gift. The miles can quickly add up when you're driving to and from the hospital every day.

Reach Out

Let the new mom know you're thinking of her and her family. The support is appreciated and means so much, but just know it's impossible for her to respond to everyone.

Reaching out without any expectation for a response is a great way to show love and support without any pressure.

When you do speak with the mom, try not to relate to her and don't say “I know how you feel,” because unless you had a baby with the same challenges you don't truly know how she feels. Instead, just listen. That's what she needs most during this time is someone to just listen.

Another helpful tip: If you want to offer help, offer specific things. When you are overwhelmed, it is often difficult to know what you need. Offering a specific thing that Mom can say "yes" or "no" to is easier.

Provide Meals

Preparing dinner is the last thing on any NICU parents' mind. Provide the family with a home-cooked meal, so they don't have to eat hospital food day after day. Also think about making individual portions that can be frozen and brought to the NICU for lunch.

Give gift certificates to restaurants in the area. 

Make grab-and-go snack packs. Having healthy snacks on hand in the NICU is a must. Granola bars, trail mix and even fresh fruit is a quick way to reenergize throughout the day.

Say Congratulations

Tell the parents congratulations! This is supposed to be a happy time and even though it's not exactly what they had hoped for, they still had a child, which should be celebrated. It's just a different type of celebration. Sometimes NICU parents need the reminder that this is a beautiful time, even if it does not feel beautiful at the moment. 

Celebrate Milestones

No matter how long or short the experience, NICU stays often feel extremely isolating to new parents and it can make all the difference to be reminded they're not alone and that their new baby is loved. You can do this by sending cards, messages, or little gifts whenever their baby reaches a new NICU milestone like gaining weight, taking their first bottle (aka no more feeding tube!), or the big one—passing the car seat test to go home. 

Give Preemie Parents Time to Grieve

Loved ones need to understand that grieving is part of the process. While preemie parents are happy their child is alive and getting the care they need, they're also grieving the loss of what they thought was going to be a joyful time, so they need to work through their emotions. It can be a lonely time and loved ones can feel helpless to do anything about it, but they need to give preemie parents time to grieve.  

Help with Chores and Pets

Help clean and tidy up their house and do laundry. Walk the dog and buy pet food so it's one less thing they have to worry about or even offer to foster the family pets during the NICU stay.

It's always the little things that helped the most.

Give a Journal

A journal makes a great gift. Some moms find it therapeutic to write about their experience in the NICU. In addition to a journal, you can also give word puzzles, adult coloring books and magazines.

Deliver Diapers

Most new parents go into nesting mode before the baby comes, stocking up on essentials like diapers, but if labor starts early, they may not be prepared yet and even if they are, the diapers they have will likely be too big. 

Buy special diapers specifically for preemies and deliver them so they're at home when the baby goes home (the hospital will provide diapers for preemies in the NICU). 

Give Them Grace

The NICU paranoia takes a long time to shake. The sterile hospital environment and procedures parents have to go through are difficult to forget. Every time a parent enters the NICU, they’re required to scrub in for three minutes. Hands are sanitized every time they touch their baby. It is very difficult for new parents to see their baby with so many wires, IV ports, monitors, etc. After the NICU, parents are often terrified of doing something wrong.

During flu season especially (or COVID season!) be understanding if your friend is nervous to have you meet or hold the baby.

Self-Care & Pampering

It is not uncommon for mothers of NICU babies to put themselves on the back burner. Helping mom to feel as “normal” as possible is critical for her wellbeing and health. Packing a little “self-care” basket is a great way to show Mom you care and remind her that she needs to take care of herself too. 

Things to include in the NICU care basket: travel toothbrush and toothpaste, face wash, deodorant, dry shampoo, brush, chapstick, gum, mints and Ibuprofen. Unscented moisturizing lotion is helpful for the dry hospital environments and all the “scrubbing in” NICU Moms need to do. 

A sweet touch to include would be a mirror for her to see baby's face during kangaroo care. Talk about melting mama's heart to see that sweet face up close!

Pumping supplies: an electric pump, hands free pumping bra, nipple cream, nipple gel ice packs, breast pads, and freezer-safe bottles or breast milk bags for expressed milk will come in very handy for NICU pumping sessions.

Cozy items: consider adding cozy socks, slippers, a robe (also helpful for kangaroo care), and a blanket. A soft travel pillow, eye mask, earbuds or headphones would come in handy during those long days or overnight stays.

For the Baby

Parents love to see their new baby's name around their NICU area. A cute handmade name sign for outside the isolette or bed or a personalized baby blanket are items parents enjoy receiving.

If you know the baby can wear clothes, preemie-sized hats or socks and preemie clothing with snaps rather than zippers for tube and wire access are great additions to a gift basket.

If the NICU allows, a small music player with gentle tunes to play at the baby's bedside, a frame for a family picture near the baby's bedside, and books to read to the baby are all great gifts that will bring comfort to both baby and parents.

Keep Offering Help After Baby Comes Home

Oftentimes, loved ones can forget that once the baby is home from the hospital, the new parents still need lots of love and support. The new Mom might be tied to the house for some weeks once the baby comes home. Continuing to offer support even after the baby comes home is a great way to support the new parents. 

Respect Boundaries

This goes beyond getting permission to post pictures of the new baby on social media. It may be that the new family really wants your presence, and they might also need space. Be sensitive to the fact that the new Mom may also be dealing with their own recovery needs and not available to communicate with you. Check in, but do so mindfully without inundating the new parents with a ton of texts and don't take it personally if you don't hear back right away—or at all. Instead of sending a message that asks, “Any updates on the baby?” send a gentle note that doesn't ask for anything in return, but still makes it clear you care.

Supporting a family navigating the journey of a NICU stay is an act of love that can profoundly impact their experience. This time in the NICU is a delicate balance of joy, fear, anticipation, and resilience. By standing alongside these parents with empathy, patience, and kindness, you help lighten their load and remind them they're not walking this path alone. The NICU journey may be challenging, but with the support of loved ones, it can also be a time of profound love and connection that parents will remember and appreciate deeply.