Being a parent of an infant in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is very different than having a newborn at home. When you have a newborn you are trying to squeeze tasks in around their changing, feeding and sleeping schedule. When your child is in the NICU, household tasks get crammed into the brief periods between sleeping, pumping, sterilizing, working, perhaps eating and trips to the NICU. If you are lucky, you have a short trip to the hospital and are able to return home easily, but that often means you are getting home in the wee hours of the morning. If you live further away, you may end up seeking out overnight accommodations.
Regardless of your proximity to the hospital, all parents have one thing in common; they are barely home and when they are at home they are physically and mentally exhausted.
Many people offer help to parents of infants in the NICU by saying “Let me know if you need some help”. This is great and lets the parents know they are not alone. The problem is that parents are often reluctant to admit they need help, or they just don’t know what help they need. The best thing you can do is to make a specific offer to help them. Parents, you just need to accept those offers.
If you are not sure of what things you can do to help here are some ideas:
- If they have other children, pets or aging parents, offer to take care of them.
- Make them a home cooked meal in a container they don’t have to wash and return to you.
- Arrange to drop by and help with the housework.
- Offer to pick up their laundry and return it washed and folded.
- Help with the house, cut the lawn, shovel the driveway, and/or make the house look lived in.
- Pick up their mail and sort addressed mail from unaddressed mail so they can quickly look at bills and important items.
- Do some grocery shopping for them.
- Ask them “What can I do to help you ? “
- Drive parents back and forth to the hospital.
- Respect the parents’ wishes about how they want to mark the birth. Some may wish to celebrate. Others may want to wait until the baby is home. It is for the parents to decide and for you to support their wishes.
- Learn about prematurity, but don’t feel the need to share what you’re learning with the parents. Be careful about what resources you use, especially if you’re researching online.
- Try not to be offended if parents exclude you temporarily. The NICU can be difficult and some people turn inwards in order to cope.
- Shop for necessities when the baby is discharged from the hospital.
- Respect the rules of the NICU. Don’t visit if you’re sick or if people close to you are sick. Respect the privacy of other parents and their babies.
- Offer to communicate with other family and friends so that the parents don’t have to spend all their time updating everyone.
- Coordinate other offers of help so that the parents don’t need to organize who does what.
- Resist the urge to compare the new baby with other babies. Please don’t make comments on size or weight, and please don’t talk about other birth experiences unless you have personal experience as a parent of a premature baby.
- Keep offering help when the baby is home. The first few months can be isolating and difficult and parents can really use continued assistance.
- When a baby goes home, remember that preemies, especially during the winter months, are at risk for infections and sickness. Never visit the parents and baby at home if you’re sick, and respect their wish to keep their baby healthy. They are not being over-protective. They are being good parents.
These things will help to relieve the pressure that they are under and allow them to focus on caring for their child.
Note: these points are also things that would be appreciated by any new parent or anyone with a critically ill family member.
Thank you to Jonathan Foster, father of little Amarrah and Kate Robson at Sunnybrook Hospital, Toronto for providing this information.