Every year, nearly 400,000 babies in the United States are born premature. This means they were delivered before completing the normal 37-40 weeks of gestation, and therefore missed out on some of essential growth and development that takes place during the final weeks of pregnancy. Premature babies, or “preemies,” are fragile and can face short-term or life-long health problems.
National Prematurity Awareness Month was established in 2008 to support families that deal with premature birth. Premature babies are kept in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, where medical professionals monitor them, help them recover, and treat any medical issues that they face. This November, we’d like to highlight things friends and family of parents with newborns in the NICU can do to support them through this trying time.
Reach out. Dealing with a premature or sick newborn is one of the most stressful experiences parents will go through. Though it can be awkward in this time of crisis, it’s important that new NICU parents know that they have friends and family that support them – so reach out! Even if you’ve offered your support in the past, keep checking in. It can be hard, in difficult times, to reach out to your support network, so it’s likely they’ll appreciate you making contact. Let them know that you are here to listen, sympathize, or vent to, and shoot a supportive text message their way every couple of days.
Make sure they know their rights! Having a child in the NICU is overwhelming and usually unexpected. Few parents plan for this, and with such high stakes, it’s important for parents to know the best way to advocate for their child—and for themselves! This overview of the NICU Parents Bill of Rights is a great place to start, as is this article from a former obstetrics nurse.
There may also be options for extended parental leave, so parents don’t have to get back to the office before or right when their baby comes home. These laws aren’t as strong as many parents would like, but make sure your friends know what rights they have when it comes to dealing with their employer!
Look out for the older siblings. Having a new baby in the NICU is a scary experience for everyone involved. Older siblings, who likely were already struggling with the idea of a new baby, may face extra emotional turmoil now that their parents are dealing with the stress and anxiety of having a preemie. They may feel abandoned, scared, and confused. Now is a great time for you to swoop in with a care package, a hug, and some reassurance!
Not sure where to start? These sibling-support coloring books from Platypus Media are the perfect thing to help older siblings adjust to having a baby brother or sister in the NICU. As they color the pictures, older siblings will learn how the NICU works to make their baby brother or sister healthy and what they can do to be a great big sibling.
Send gift cards to their favorite restaurants or a food delivery service like Uber Eats or Grubhub. Many NICU parents want to stay in the hospital to be near their preemie, but hospital food is boring, gross, and kind of depressing. Gift cards will allow your friends to order in their favorite comfort food without leaving the premises – or draining wallets already strained by a prolonged hospital stay. If you’re local, you can also bring food to the hospital or leave some at their house for when they get home.
Play chauffeur. For families who can’t stay at the hospital or in a nearby Ronald McDonald house, getting back and forth to the hospital will be a big deal. If you’re local, offering a ride can lift a big burden from your friends’ shoulders. Not only does it save them from paying for parking or driving while sleep-deprived, it’ll also give you a chance to catch up and offer support. If you’re far away, an Uber or Lyft gift certificate is almost as good!
Celebrate the arrival of the baby. When most babies arrive, parents are greeted by well-wishes, cards, flowers, and enthusiastic friends and relatives. With preemies, however, friends and family are often unsure how to proceed. Should they call, or will it disturb the overwhelmed parents? Should they send a card, or would that be a negative reminder of a stressful time? We say, go ahead and celebrate! Send a celebratory card, a bouquet of flowers, or even a NICU-specific “welcome baby” present like a preemie octopus or NICU crib card. This will help lend your friend or family member an air of normalcy, and remind them that, even through this trying time, there is so much to celebrate.
These are just a few of our favorite ways to support NICU families. Do you have any other tips? Share them below!