Parents who have their baby stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) after birth have a dramatically different experience than parents who have their newborn baby in the room with them. As a NICU occupational therapist, I work with these parents every day and often take care of them as much as their babies. But personally, I have had both experiences. My first daughter spent a week in the NICU, while my second daughter was able to spend her first few days in my room with me. I was very fortunate in that my daughter came home just a few days after I did, but the average NICU stay can be much longer.
According to the March of Dimes, the average NICU stay for all babies is 13.5 days and can be 24 to 86 days for pre-term babies, depending on the prematurity of the baby. Parents of NICU babies are a very vulnerable population and are susceptible to experiencing heightened levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress. If you have a friend or family member with a baby in the NICU, or recently discharged from the NICU, there are likely a few things that a NICU mom friend would want you to know.
6 Things a NICU Mom Needs
If their baby is still in the NICU, they need a lot of support. They are not at home resting while someone else takes care of their baby. Parents of babies in the NICU are encouraged to be at the NICU as much as possible to bond with their baby, learn to feed their baby and be involved in the care of their baby. This can be challenging if they have other young children at home, transportation barriers, or a job to get back to. You can help by offering to grocery shop, bring meals, provide transportation to the hospital, drop off a change of clothes at the hospital, and watch other children.
2. Someone to Listen
If the baby is still in the NICU or newly discharged, parents may have a lot of anxiety about the health of their baby. Having a baby in the NICU is very overwhelming. The baby may be undergoing a lot of tests and procedures. This can be very scary. You may be hesitant to ask questions because you don’t want to pry, but your friend may need a sympathetic ear. It could be helpful to call or text and offer to just listen to her thoughts and fears.
Parents of babies in the NICU may be very concerned about germs, especially now during the pandemic. They should be overly concerned. They know that their fragile baby is going from a very sterile environment into the real world. This can be very anxiety-producing. You can be sensitive to this by offering to bring a meal or gift and just leaving it on their front porch. You can meet the baby later when they have developed a stronger immune system. Also, show your sensitivity to this by dropping off some hand sanitizer and wipes with a little note about how you can’t wait to meet the baby via Zoom or FaceTime.
A growing percentage of babies have to receive treatment in the NICU due to drug exposure during pregnancy. This could be the result of opioids, but it could also occur if the baby’s mom takes antidepressants, sleeping pills, and some pain medications during pregnancy. Babies born addicted to these substances often experience a group of symptoms as they withdraw from the drugs or medications. This is called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and can be hard on the baby and the mom.
There is a stigma associated with this, but moms of babies experiencing NAS need the most support of all. Most of the time, their drug use is monitored by a physician or clinic, and they are advised not to stop cold turkey for the health of the unborn baby. Delivering the baby and allowing the baby to have controlled and monitored withdrawal in the NICU is what is recommended and has the optimal outcome for the baby. But it can be very challenging for mom. If you have a friend or family member going through this, offer support without judgment. Allow them to talk to you honestly about their fears and anxieties. They will need support when they bring the baby home as well because often, babies who have experienced NAS are very fussy and harder to console.
5. Essential Baby Items
Parents of NICU babies may not be prepared to bring the baby home. If the baby was born early, the nursery might not be ready. Or they may not have a car seat, bassinet, diapers, etc. Offer to pick up these necessary items. Babies who are in the NICU may also need things that parents could not plan for. They may need special bottles, smaller clothes, adaptations for the car seat, or special medicine. You can offer to pick up these essential items to make things easier for your friend.
Pre-term babies will reach their developmental milestones later than babies born at full term. Your friend with a pre-term baby will be so touched if you celebrate these milestones with her. Instead of saying, “He is 21 months old and just started walking?” you could say, “Yay, he took his first step already at just 21 months! He has come a really long way for being born so early and tiny!”
More than anything, NICU moms need a lot of support so that they can focus on their babies. Even when their baby comes home, sometimes the journey continues. They may have a fussy baby, a lot of medical appointments, therapy coming into the home, and other unexpected things that add to the stress of having a new baby. Offer ongoing support. Your NICU mom friend will appreciate it so much!