Sibling Support in the NICU
One out of every ten American babies is born prematurely; that’s about 380,000 babies each year who start their lives in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. While the NICU staff work around the clock to help premature babies grow healthy and strong, it is important to remember that, for the family, having a baby in the NICU remains emotionally and physically exhausting.
Amidst the whirlwind of hospital visits, concerned friends, and sleepless nights, older siblings of preemies often feel scared or left out during this difficult time.
The older siblings rarely receive the support they need, especially the kids old enough to recognize the stress of the situation, but too young to fully understand it. The big brother or sister is often left behind with family or babysitters while parents spend time in the NICU. Taking them along on visits to the NICU can be upsetting if they’re not prepared, or boring if there is nothing for them to do. Some NICUs don’t allow siblings to visit at all.
As Kelly Scher, a Child Life Specialist from Golisano Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida explains, “Many parents struggle with balancing their time between children at home and their hospitalized premature baby.” Even when home, it can be difficult for parents who are emotionally spent to engage with older children, or provide enough positive attention and reassurance. Explaining to a young child what is happening to their baby brother or sister can also be intimidating, especially if the preemie is experiencing serious health complications.
So, how can parents ensure that the older children are given proper support?
Step 1: Self Care
Parents need to focus on their own wellbeing before they can provide the support their children need. Taking time for a yoga class, a brisk walk, or a hot cup of tea can help you re-energize. Support groups and online forums can also be very helpful. It’s important for parents to seek out whatever form of emotional support works best for them. As any mental health professional will tell you, if you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not taking care of your family.
Step 2: Ask for Help
Contacting other families who have experienced the same thing can be a great way to get advice and connect with others who understand. It’s also a good idea to ask the NICU if they have any special resources or programs geared toward children. For example, volunteers from Hand to Hold, a NICU support organization in Texas, work with certain NICUs to offer fun activity days called Sibling Sundaes. The hospital may also have a Child Life Specialist, who can help prepare siblings for visiting the new baby, or help them process their emotions.
The March of Dimes has developed a NICU Family Support program, implemented in many U.S. hospitals, which offers informational materials for families and helps educate NICU staff about how to build networks of support. Dr. James Cook, Director of Neonatology at Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, says the March of Dimes program is, “The best way to involve families in the care of their babies.” The March of Dimes website also has informational articles, news, research, and health education specialists waiting to answer any questions.
Step 3: Use Resources
There are a variety of great Sibling Support resources available. Educational sibling support coloring or activity books can be very helpful. Come Home Soon, Baby Brother! (also available as Come Home Soon, Baby Sister!) uses illustrations and text to explain why the new baby can’t come home yet, how the NICU takes care of them, and what siblings can do to help. According to Elizabeth B. Mittiga, RN, BSN, from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, these NICU Sibling Support Coloring Books, “Explain in terms that children can understand, allowing them the enjoyment of coloring the pictures as well.”
Other resources designed to support NICU siblings, including activity pages, children’s books, and videos, can be found in the sidebar.
There are many different ways that NICU families and hospitals can provide sibling support. Above all, preemie siblings just need to understand that they are cared for, loved, and an important part of the family.