September is Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Awareness Month. If you’re a NICU mama, past or present, you are aware of the NICU. The fear, the worry, the constant beeping sounds, the helplessness. But also the depth of love, the precision of care, the gratitude, the personal growth.
I know it. I’m a NICU mom myself, two times over and two years apart. And for this NICU awareness month, I can personally attest that a NICU mama will be forever grateful for her support system.
Now I could write about this topic all day, but I can’t take credit for any of the ideas. If you have a mama-friend with a baby in the NICU, here are some ways that my friends and family cared for me during those first few weeks, while I was learning to care for my tiniest of tots. And yes, all new moms need some help, but we NICU mamas have some very specific needs.
Here are some ways you can fill them.
First things first, your friend just had a baby! But, she might not be feeling very excited yet. In fact, she’s probably feeling like absolute hell. So… be excited for her. Do you usually send a card, maybe flowers? Send them! Calls, texts, all of those, keep them coming.
Positive framing goes a long way for a NICU mama. We are having a hard experience. Our baby is hooked up to machines, and tubes, and monitors, and it’s terrifying. We may be waiting for days, or weeks, to hold them in our arms. Perhaps we are excited to have a new baby, but we’re not sure if we should be. Either way friends, it’s time to be excited for us, or with us, or both.
Bring the Basics
Oftentimes a baby ends up in the NICU after an unexpected birth experience. I showed up at the hospital lacking any type of delivery bag or even a clean change of clothes. Fortunately for me, one of my friends zipped out on a shopping adventure, and delivered some fresh, new-mom-appropriate attire before my surgery meds had even worn off. Changing out of the hospital-provided clothing was ahhh-mazing.
If you’re not sure what to bring, anything clean and loose-fitting will be perfect. Robes, nursing tanks, the stretchier the better.
Bring the Cute Stuff Too
You may think a NICU mama’s last concern is what her baby is wearing, and that may be true. But one thing I realized is that being able to take ownership of the small things is essential. When you have a baby in the NICU, you have zero control over most of your, and your baby’s, experience. If you can change that just a little, like by choosing your baby’s next outfit and maybe some accessories too, it will change your experience a lot.
One friend of mine sorted through her kids’ infant jammies and found the tiniest newborn sizes she had. (Yes, sizes lie for newborn clothing too.) Another friend brought over the cutest little preemie-sized outfit, complete with a pink butt-ruffle. Being able to choose my baby’s next outfits, even if I wasn’t always there to dress her myself, made a world of difference in my NICU experience.
If you’re not sure what to choose, look for outfits with lots of snaps; they’re helpful for accommodating any medical devices.
Take Care of Her Other-Living-Things
Pets, children, plants. Walk them, feed them, water them. You don’t even need to ask permission, as we may not have the attention to think through those details. Instead, tell her when you can help and what you can do. For example, “I’m off work today at 5:30 and I’m coming over after to walk Spot. Can you leave me a key/ leash/ etc.?”
Want to go above and beyond? My incredible friends broke into my house at midnight (with permission of course) to rescue my dog from a people-less house and then took care of him for a week. I had so much peace of mind knowing that my “first-born child” was in good care. And yes, they returned him to me when I came home; I needed all the dog snuggles at that point.
Relate, If You Can
I know it can be a “sympathy faux pas” to try to relate to someone going through a difficult time. I’m not saying you should tell your friend that you know exactly how she feels, but in this situation, if you can relate, this is a good time to share. Having a baby in the NICU is totally overwhelming, and isolating. Hearing from other people who had their own NICU experiences, childhood hospital stays, or any expertise in atypical infant care was very reassuring.
Be There on the Hardest Day
For me, my hardest day was the one when I left the hospital but couldn’t bring my baby home with me. After speaking to some other NICU mamas, this is a commonly miserable day. Do something nice for your mama-friend on this day, or another day that may be equally trying (think: if the baby needs a surgery, or if they are transferring hospitals, etc.). When I left the hospital without my little bundle, I came home to a house that was decorated, stashed with my favorite snacks, and filled with sweet cards.
The snacks really deserve their own paragraph.
Throw the Shower Anyways
Although my little love was born a week before her New Orleans baby shower, we had it anyways. No, not right away, but a few months later my sweet friends threw a party in honor of my little party animal.
From speaking with other NICU moms, a common hardship we aren’t prepared for is that we have to grieve the parenting experience we thought we were going to have. So, get out the decor and email that guest list. It will prove to be a great time.
A NICU Mama Needs Support
Did you know that between 10-15% of all babies spend some amount of time in the NICU? Premature birth accounts for a good part of that number, but there are other causes too. Those mamas need your support, now more than ever.
As much as I may have yearned for a “typical” birth experience at the time, it’s now five years later and I wouldn’t change a thing. Those first few weeks not only shaped me into the mom I have become, but they also provided a very intense reminder of the incredible support system I have in my life.