As moms, especially first-time moms, we all have this fairytale mentality about childbirth. Yes, we know it will hurt. We know it won’t be fun. And we all see ourselves in that picture-perfect image of holding our baby immediately after birth. Unfortunately, for many women, this idyllic scene is never their reality. What many of us don’t imagine is our baby in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). And we will become NICU moms.
Being a new mom has many challenges. When you are a NICU mom, those challenges multiply. Most moms may be worried about what to put their baby in for their newborn hospital photos. NICU moms worry that none of the clothes they bought pre-baby fit their preemie. A big concern for most parents is the car seat fitting for their ride home. NICU moms are worried about traveling to and from the hospital multiple times a day for weeks or even months.
NICU Moms Need Support in Many Ways
For loved ones, it may be the first time they experienced knowing someone with a baby in the NICU. Most friends and family members don’t know how they can help a NICU mom. While there are multiple lists about what to get a new mom—bring them homemade food, stop by to watch the baby so they can shower—these things don’t apply to a NICU mom.
For this article, I spoke with many moms who had children in the NICU, including my mother. I was born a month early and spent over a month in the care unit. My mom, who suffered many complications, stayed in the hospital long after I was released. For her, the best care she received—and something she still talks about to this day—was the nurses who documented all my special moments. Here’s what other NICU moms had to say about what they loved and needed while their baby was in care.
How to Help a NICU Mom
Parking Passes, Gas Cards & Toll Money
Many people may not realize that parents do not always get to stay in the hospital when their baby is in the NICU. This means they constantly drive to and from the hospital during visitor’s hours. And even more shocking? Most hospitals require parents to still pay for parking! Not to mention the gas and tolls required for traveling. For many moms, the simple gift of having parking paid for, or friends and family giving gas gift cards, was the best way they were cared for.
“The best treats we received were gas gift cards and toll money. My in-laws actually gave us their Sunpass to use during our NICU stay. We didn’t have to worry about that, which was helpful.” – Allison, whose son was born at 32 weeks and spent 65 days in the NICU.
Food Delivery & Gift Cards
When your child is in the NICU, things as simple as food often move to the back of your mind. And after a while, hospital food no longer cuts it. There are many ways to send food (ex., Uber Eats and GrubHub) to your loved ones. This is a great and easy way to help them during their time in the NICU.
“We were super grateful for the GrubHub and restaurant gift cards for all of our late night, last-minute meals.” – Marissa, whose son was born at 27 weeks and spent a little over three months in the NICU.
Someone to Care for Things at Home
Some parents may be able to stay in the hospital during their child’s NICU stay. Others may opt to stay in a hotel or rent an Airbnb to be closer for daily visits. Even those who remain at home will often not have spare time to do simple tasks. Tasks like caring for a pet or cleaning up after themselves. Having friends and family take those worries away is an amazing way to help parents in the NICU.
“Luckily, our hospital gave us a room so we could stay at the hospital during our entire stay. One of the biggest help was people volunteering to care for our home while we were gone. We had people hire a lawn service, house cleaners, dog walkers/watchers. It was such a big help. The last thing we wanted to worry about was household chores.” – Alexa, whose son was born at 38 weeks with serious transient tachypnea and spent 28 days in the NICU.
“I live far away from any family, but my mom was able to come out. She cleaned our entire house, took care of our dogs, made tons of food, drove me back and forth to the hospital, and cleaned all my pump parts for me. My only job was to sleep and go visit the baby, which was extremely helpful.” – Slaine, whose son was born at 34 weeks and spent 5 weeks in the NICU
Clothes for Preemies
When gifted clothes at your baby shower, the most common size you receive is newborn. Even when shopping for ourselves, we often reach for newborn or larger, if only to ensure our baby will fit into the clothing at some point. But most of us do not think to have any preemie clothing on hand. When our baby is born prematurely, a mom may not have any cute clothes available for their child. Gifting a loved one preemie clothing is a beautiful gesture that can go a long way.
“Clothes for preemies so that my son could actually wear clothes in the NICU when he was off the bilirubin light and heating lamp. It was comforting to me to be able to dress him in something from home.” – Gercia, whose son was born three weeks early and in the NICU for 11 days due to intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR).
Support from Others
One big thing many NICU moms express is the feeling that they did something wrong. Of course, this is not true. But many moms often need a support system to help them get through their time in the NICU. Whether that support comes from family and friends or other moms who have been in a similar situation, reaching out is a simple act that can make all the difference in a mom’s mental health.
“Support from other mothers that had also been in the same situation. And validation as a new mom that my twins wouldn’t have weird attachment issues due to me not being able to hold them for the first few days of their lives!” – Allison
“Honestly, for someone to just tell me this wasn’t my fault and that everything was going to be okay. I’ll never forget finally getting to see my baby for the first time and standing over him crying that I didn’t get to do skin-to-skin, didn’t get to nurse him, didn’t even get to see what he looked like. I burst into tears, and one of the young NICU nurses came over and hugged me and told me she would make sure she took the best care of him.” – Kaitlin, whose son was in the NICU for five days after having fluid in his lungs which caused breathing issues after being stuck transverse and posterior during a 23-hour labor.
One of the most common things NICU moms cherish is documentation. Those newborn photo shoots are often canceled when your child is in the NICU. This makes moms feel like what they are experiencing isn’t normal. Many NICU nurses try to help a NICU mom by taking the time to do crafts, take pictures, and celebrate all the little moments in this new baby’s life. As loved ones, celebrating those milestones with the new parents is vital in their care.
“We appreciated the hospital hiring a photographer for seasonal pictures and allowing our photographer to take newborn pics. Preemies miss all those first exciting days, and they are still so important. Those pictures mean so much, especially when we were so scared in the beginning.” – Becca, whose son was born at 27 weeks and was in the NICU for 88 days.
“The NICU staff is so amazing. They do little things like his footprints and make little posters and put them up in his room. They are so crafty and thoughtful. It really makes you know that they care for these babies like their own. We also got a NICU journal and NICU milestone cards to take pictures with from the social work team.” – Kate, whose son was born at 28 weeks and is currently in the NICU.
“Our amazing care team did things like little footprints and made little cards for the parents around the holidays. Bringing in things to make the baby’s bassinet more personal like blankets, wraps, clothes they could wear with the monitors. Our hospital also made us charm bracelets for every milestone or event such as a first feed, first clothes, first bath, etc. It was really special to celebrate the little triumphs.” – Katie
How Nurses Help a NICU Mom
For many moms, their nurses and care team made all the difference during their time in the NICU. I spoke with a few NICU nurses, who cemented the importance of documentation and making parents feel special in uncertain times. “I work in a level 3 NICU, so most of our babies are so tiny and sick that the parents can’t hold them,” says Christina, a NICU nurse. “During that time, we have seen what helps the moms and dads. Making things for them like arts and crafts with their footprints or helping them create a journal to express their feelings; things such as decorating their beds with pretty blankets even seem to help them.”
Amy, a NICU nurse in Florida, said she finds that moms having the ability to watch the baby when they are not there (via a video feed) is very helpful. And having support from veteran NICU moms really makes a difference. “We have NICView, which is a camera that each baby gets. The parents get a log-in to watch their baby even when they cannot be at the hospital,” she says. “Previous NICU moms would also sometimes bring their little NICU graduate to the meetings to give hope to the current moms.”
Gift cards and preemie clothes are important ways to help a NICU mom. But for most NICU moms, all they really need is support. If your friend has a baby in the NICU, send them a text and tell them you care. Celebrate each new day with them as they become new parents to their tiny miracle. And to all the NICU moms out there: you are rockstars.