How to Support a NICU Parent

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September is NICU awareness month. One year ago this month, I was a brand new NICU parent myself. My daughter was born seven weeks early, following an extended hospital stay when my water broke unexpectedly at 30 weeks pregnant. 

This was my third pregnancy and suddenly, I was thrust in to unfamiliar and frankly terrifying territory. I had to learn how to hold my tiny 3 1/2 pound baby without disrupting wires and monitors. I figured out how to recognize cues that she was overstimulated, spending hours of my day alone in a quiet room with the lights turned down low. It was an isolating, difficult experience. But it was also one that I learned a lot from. It redefined me as a parent and changed how I show up for people as a friend. 

Here are a few tips on how to support a NICU parent

Ditch the toxic positivity

It’s my experience that when people don’t quite know what to say, they resort to encouraging you to “look on the bright side”. Sometimes, they even remind you of how much worse it could be.

Minimizing the intensity of someone else’s experience in an attempt to make them feel better almost always backfires. Fairly quickly, I became comfortable living in the space of “and”. I was thankful that my baby was overall healthy AND it still royally sucked that she was in the NICU. I encouraged everybody else to meet me there too. You can be grateful while acknowledging that something is still difficult. Multiple complex emotions can coexist and recognizing that truth is powerful. Simply saying “I’m sorry you’re going through this, it must be so hard” can speak volumes. 

Show up, even if you feel awkward 

Many well-meaning people told me to “let them know if I needed anything”. Frankly, I was too exhausted and overwhelmed to even figure out what I needed. Of course, my core group of people jumped in immediately- taking care of my older kids and completing all sorts of necessary tasks. But it’s the people I didn’t know very well, like my son’s preschool director who handed over a meal in the school drop off line or the neighbor who put a small pumpkin on our mailbox, that truly floored me. They found a way to help, without waiting for me to ask. It was a lesson for me in the importance of quietly showing up for the people in your community who are in need. When someone you care for is going through something, the worst thing you can do or say is nothing (check this post from Katie).  

Keep Checking In

As with any major life event, support tends to be robust when your baby is first born. People are frequently asking for updates about you and about the baby. But, as time passes, they naturally return to their own lives. Some studies suggest that women who have babies in the NICU are 70% more likely to develop PPD with 1/4 of them also developing some PTSD. Having a newborn baby is often an extremely isolating event. Having one who doesn’t immediately return home with you from the hospital feels even more so.

I appreciated the friends who kept calling and texting, even if I didn’t always answer. Those who were brave enough to encourage me to eat a real meal or suggest an actual nap instead of a third chai latte probably should be credited with keeping me alive. The people who treated me like a normal human by sending me funny memes or asking me if I seen the latest episode of the Real Housewives kept me from feeling like my life was only confined to our tiny hospital room. 

Hold Space for Them

Even a year after my daughter’s birth, I still find myself needing to talk about little details as they arise for me. The people in my life who are willing to listen are invaluable. Your journey as a NICU parent doesn’t end on the day you get to go home (even if it is arguably the very best day ever). There has often been a shocking loss of expectation and it takes a long time to attempt to reconcile it all. Instagram accounts like @dearnicumama and @theteaonbirthtrauma give some important perspective on this journey for all who might want to provide meaningful support. We should hold space for all mothers well past the early postpartum period.

Celebrate the baby

One of the most difficult things about having a premature baby was that instead of feeling excited when she was born, I just felt scared. This feeling was unsettling and unnatural, but hard to shake. The people who celebrated my new baby just as you would under any other circumstance, by sending flowers or small gifts, really helped me to reconcile my own feelings. She truly was a gift, and worthy of the fanfare. 

Having a baby in the NICU is a rollercoaster ride that no-one wants to be on.

Everybody’s experience will be unique and how they want to be helped will vary from parent to parent. But the truth remains- every baby is a tiny incredible miracle. And every family deserves to be supported in the best way we can. 

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Hi! I’m Justine. I’m a part-time pediatric speech language pathologist currently working in Early Intervention and full time hot mess mom. I live in North Hampton with my lovely husband, two (mostly) delightful children and a very sweet old-lady Boston Terrier. When I’m not chasing after my little guy or dodging my pre-teen daughter’s eye rolls, I can be found sneakily enjoying trashy reality TV, oversharing on social media, traveling in search of live music, shaking my crazies out via running and adding to my extensive "to-read" book stack. I’m passionate about sharing my life through writing, never straying too far from the ocean, helping families and toddlers find their voice and drinking my coffee while it is still hot. You can find more of my writing at www.justinewrites.com and follow my adventures (and disasters!) on Instagram at @justinewrites.

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