Behind every tiny hand and tiny beating heart of a premature baby is the story of the mama whose pregnancy ended too soon, or whose baby needed a little extra support at birth. For almost five years, I have been a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nurse, and have the privilege of caring for these tiny humans. I have also walked alongside and supported the mothers and fathers dealing with a situation that they never wanted. I can’t speak for all NICU mamas, as all situations are different, but I have learned a little something along the way:
NICU mamas need you.
They need the support of their family, friends, and community to come alongside them. The more present the parents can be for the baby, the better for everyone. But what do they really need? How can you help them? Let me share a couple of ideas with you.
NICU mamas are grieving. They need you to listen to their stories. A NICU mama may have had a traumatic birth. Perhaps, they were whisked to a hospital via an ambulance or helicopter. They may have had an emergency C-section. Their water may have broken weeks ahead of time, and they knew it was too early. No matter how it happened, they are often grieving the fact that they didn’t get to carry their baby to term. A simple question, “Tell me about your baby’s birth” can start the conversation. Sharing and talking about their experience helps them process what happened, and ultimately helps them heal from it. Please just offer an open ear, no judgment or comments.
NICU mamas need logistical support. Their whole world changed in an instant. It is so important for them to be available and present for that little baby. They need someone to feed their pets. They need someone to take their other kids to events, or help get them to school. Go grocery shopping for them. Drop meals off at their house. Pick up pads, underwear, brushes, and whatever they forgot to bring to the hospital because their delivery was unexpected. They may need a ride back and forth to the hospital if they aren’t driving yet. They may need you to help get the baby’s room ready. Offer support in a specific way if you can. Often, their spouse has to go back to work, so any help you can give supports them both.
NICU mamas need you to understand germs. They aren’t being paranoid. Your little sniffle can cause their baby to spend extra weeks in the hospital if they get sick. Don’t visit if you have a cold or are sick in any way. Don’t do it. Just DO NOT do it. Don’t insist that your children see the baby either. You can bring them if they are invited. Wash your hands before you touch or hold the baby. Continue this once the baby goes home. Get your flu shot. NICU mamas will love you for this.
NICU mamas don’t know when their babies are coming home, so don’t ask. This is very baby-specific. A premature baby has to learn how to suck, swallow and breathe. They aren’t even ready to start eating until they are at least 32 weeks gestational age. Their energy levels are low. If they are extremely premature, the skill of eating and gaining weight takes even longer. If they have had surgeries or infections, it will take them even longer to come home. Just ask, “How are things going?” And don’t be surprised if they say, “They just aren’t eating well.” This is normal.
NICU mamas don’t need judgment about breastfeeding, bottles, or formula. Most NICU babies are unable to feed right away. They are too sick to be able to do this. So, a NICU mama starts pumping so they can begin producing milk– every 2 hours around the clock. This is exhausting for them. Pack them a snack bag, take them out to lunch, buy them pumping bras, and protein bars. When their babies do start to feed, it is often a combination of breast and bottle feeding. The babies often need higher calorie supplementation for growth that is added to the breast milk and given through a bottle. If pumping isn’t working, isn’t possible, or becomes too much for them due to all the other stress they are going through, support them in their decision to use formula.
NICU mamas need a little normal in their life. That means you. Help them to laugh. Encourage them to take breaks to get away from the hospital a bit and take a nap. Run errands with them. Take them to get a manicure. Text them just to say, I’m thinking of you. If they don’t text back, know they are probably doing something really important like pumping, catching desperately-needed rest, or holding their little one skin-to-skin.
Loving a NICU mama helps them to be able to focus on and love that little one that entered the world a little too soon. Friends can make all the difference in their lives.