The NICU: 7 Simple Ways to Support the Family

Baby in the NICU incubator. 7 ways to support the family

The NICU 7 Simple Ways to Support the Family

7 simple ways you can support a family with a baby in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit)

When a family experiences the high of delivering a new baby into the world and that joy is slightly diminished by the feeling of fear associated with their baby being admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), you want to do all you can to help.

If their baby came surprisingly early, the stress on the family will be even greater. But what can you do? Here are 7 simple ways to support the family with a baby in the NICU and the emotional and physical needs that go along with this experience.


1. Ask what they need (they may not know enough or be too overwhelmed to be able to tell you at first)

First of all, simply ask. They may have a pressing concern in their mind about something they did not get around to finishing in preparation for the baby, like building the crib they thought they had 5 more weeks to work on. Ask. Also, there may be some daily routine they may be concerned about completing. For instance, who will take out the dog or feed the cats while they stay in the hospital with the baby?

If they are good friends, press them to think of what they need to get checked off their to-do list before baby comes home and see what you can do to help.

When I gave birth to my first daughter, she was 9 weeks early. 9 weeks! I had almost nothing ready. In my mind, I had more than 2 months to prepare before my baby was scheduled to arrive. That is an ice age in pregnancy terms. Yet, because she was so severely ill, my husband and I spent her 6 weeks stay in the NICU by her side. We did manage to make a few trips to pick up items from the baby registry that we would need once she got home, but our focus was on her. Reading to her, helping feed her, pumping milk to feed her through a feeding tube, holding her kangaroo style and willing her to grow big enough to come home.

My home was not a concern for me, as far as I was concerned, my home was her home, the NICU. So I cannot tell you at all what it looked like during that time, but I am grateful for the friend who came over to tidy it up before we brought our baby home.

I was totally focused on my daughter, but considering that during that time frame it was my 6-week recovery period (as a woman with an emergency C-Section) as well, I really should not have been doing anything strenuous. Even running back and forth to the hospital every day took its toll. But I was strong and foolish and ended up setting back the recovery of my abdomen’s surgical scar. Looking back, we really did need a lot of help at that time. But we were too young, inexperienced and dare I say self-sufficient/proud to ask.

Don’t let that happen to your friends.  If you ask the new parents what you can do to help and they don’t seem to know, try offering the following suggestions.

2. Offer to find care for their older children, if they have any.

Take them on vacation, day trips, sleepovers, playdates after school, to their sporting events, etc. 

When my oldest daughter was born we had no other children, pets or responsibilities to manage apart from ourselves. This was not the case when our son was born 13 years later. By coincidence, and by complete surprise he was born 4 weeks early. This time we had two teenage daughters, two dogs, and a tank full of fish. Quite a different scenario.

I was in the hospital for 5 days thanks to an emergency admittance for preeclampsia. Gratefully, his NICU stay was much shorter than our first child at only 5 days. Still, we now had to come up with an emergency plan for everyone’s care. That is a long time to not have mommy at home and to need help getting our girls to their sports camps, and games, and doctors appointments, etc. This was the summer gratefully, but if this was the school year, that could have really complicated things.

We were infinitely blessed by several families that essentially swept in and took amazing care of our girls. One swept our daughter off to their beach house for a weekend for a fun time and my oldest was able to have a couple different sleepovers with friends. I am still incredibly grateful. We did not have to concern ourselves for their safety, these were trusted friends who stepped in to save the day and allowed my husband to stay by my side as we cared for our son around the clock. An indispensable help.

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3. Food

Food, this is an essential concern that there seems to be very little time for when a newborn is in the NICU and around the clock visits/care are necessary. Some ideas are:

  • Cook for the family (store up food in their freezer, and fridge). Then, they can prepare meals as they need them and believe me there will be a time when they will need them. Either while their baby is in the NICU or the weeks following baby’s arrival home.
  • Load them up with gift cards for takeout (esp. at the hospital cafe) and their favorite neighborhood joints. Pizza, Chinese, Mexican, subs, you name it. Find out what they like best and hook them up. Those gift cards will be a real blessing in the months to come.
  • Bring over groceries and fresh food basics. The LAST thing they want to do is go to the grocery store. Believe me.

4. Gasoline, tolls and parking fees for multiple trips to the hospital.

This might sound funny but try to find a way to get gasoline into their car while the parents are resting. The last thing these families may have time for is stopping at the gasoline station to fill up, however, it is essential. Esp. if there is an emergency situation that they would need to run to the hospital to attend to their newborn.

A gift card or cash for gas, tolls and parking fees for the hospital trips is also a kind gesture and a way to help support a family that did not anticipate these added expenses.

5. Visit the baby in the hospital NICU. 

Support and encourage the entire family. Bring parents food and drink to help sustain them during the visit. If there are older kids, help the parents by bringing the older children to the hospital to visit their little sibling. They are probably worried too and really want to see him. This is a critical step to the bonding of their relationship when the baby finally comes home. Remember, this is certainly not the way the older kids planned on welcoming baby’s arrival to this world.

If mom is hospitalized for any reason, be sure to bring the kids over to visit her. They will be sick with worry. Sadly, there are far too many children’s stories featuring a deceased mother. Trust me, it’s on their minds. Hopefully, a visit with mom and baby will help reassure them.

If baby is quite ill, or exceptionally small, which can be the case if the baby is premature, do your best to find something to praise about the baby. Even if her appearance may come as a shock. I know that our oldest daughter was the smallest baby any of my friends and family had ever seen at 1 pound 9 oz by the time visitors arrived. She should have been cooking in my belly for 9 more weeks. We were all amazed and grateful that she was alive.  My family was concerned for her of course and her appearance was not that of a typical chunky bouncing bundle of baby.

But gratefully, not an unkind word was shared about her appearance or health. Instead, everyone raved about how strong she was, how amazing she was, and yes how tiny she was, but also what a fighter she would turn out to be. She is indeed an overcomer and we are grateful for the strong support and love for our daughter we received in those first weeks. It made all the difference to our mental health and confidence as new parents as well.


At home: Help the parents get ready to bring baby home

6. Help clean the house and modify the nursery as necessary to be ready for baby’s arrival.

If the baby is premature, there may be things at home that are not quite ready for baby’s arrival. Is the Crib set up? Is the changing table built? Did mom have her baby shower yet? If not, she may need a few basic staples to have on hand for baby’s arrival.

These are really quite simple: Baby really only needs diapers, Sensitive wipes (fragrance-free). Some appropriately sized clothes (I’ll get into this below). Soft, thin blankets for swaddling baby, and a bassinet for baby to sleep in the first few months.

When selecting diapers choose some that are appropriate in size to baby’s weight: usually Newborn or Size One. Unless the baby is a super preemie, and usually the hospital may hook up mom with a small supply until the baby gets into the Newborn size.) One package of Newborn should be all she will need. Size 1 will be the one to stock up on at first.

Everything else that is truly essential for the next few weeks, mom will likely bring home from the hospital NICU. The NICU nurses are oftentimes very generous in this way. Some things we received were a comb for baby’s hair, baby bottles, pumping supplies/accessories, a couple of blankets, some diapers, the unfinished package of wipes and diaper cream, and a suction bulb. These were things that they used for baby and would have thrown away for hygienic reasons so they send them home with the baby.

This will help mom get by for a few days until she gets her bearings on what else she needs specific to her baby’s development.

7. Shop for baby clothes that are size appropriate.

Take it from me, nothing is more discouraging to new parents of an undersized preemie than seeing their tiny but mighty peanut swimming in size 0-3 clothes that are 2-3 times their size. Sadness! Pick up Preemie size or at least newborn size, so they have a nice outfit to bring their cherub home in that won’t draw too much attention to how small he might be.

But do not go overboard! Baby should grow 1 ounce per day if things are going well in the first few months, so even a preemie baby will probably outgrow Newborn size in the first month. Forget an average sized baby, she will be in 0-3 months from the start.

If the baby is not a preemie but had serious health conditions that required a stay in the NICU use the following list to see what size to focus on if you want to get the gift of clothing.

Always focus on the size of the baby in pounds and inches. Some large newborns can be over 10 pounds easily. Pick clothes by the size of the baby, not by how many days/weeks/months baby is.

Also, consider that if the baby is growing quickly, the next size up will be helpful for parents. Most presents of clothing only come in when the baby is first born. It tapers off quickly after that. And having some clothes on hand for when the baby is 6-9 months old will be a blessing for the parents (provided the season of clothing works out).

Do not get a summer outfit in size 9 when it will be winter by the time the baby is big enough to wear it. That kind of thing.

However, you cannot go wrong with onesies in many sizes. These onesies are useful to wear under outfits no matter the season and have to be changed often due to diaper leaks and blowouts.

Typical Clothing sizes go something like this:

  • Preemie: 4-6 pounds, Up to 17” (Tag says P)
  • Newborn: 6-9 pounds, 17-21” (Tag says N)
  • 0-3 months: 9-12.5 pounds, 21-24”(Tag will say 3M)
  • 3-6 Months: 12.5-17lbs, 24-26.5” (Tag will say 6M)

Bonus Tip:

Help mom and dad shop for the rest of the baby basics or things they did not have time to prepare for. Especially if the baby came really early. Accompany mom on these outings so that she does not exert herself too much and help keep her from getting overwhelmed.

Well, you did it!

You have successfully found a way to support your favorite family. You just don’t realize how much you have blessed the entire family by helping them in this serious time of need. I bet you can’t wait for that little nugget to come home from the hospital so you can give him or her a squeeze. Well, that time will come sooner than you think. Meanwhile, continue looking for creative ways to be a blessing and serve. ? And share this post with your friends and family too.

Coming Soon: a post to help direct mom and dad on what essentials are needed for baby without stressing and going overboard.

In the meantime, please take a look at this article The NICU: What Mom Needs to Remember Postpartum And check out The NICU: Emotions of a NICU Mom too.


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