“The NICU isn’t what you envision when you’re pregnant and daydreaming about your baby on the way. But I got to know it all too well. I was considered at risk for preterm labor because of a short cervix. My water broke at 31 weeks (two months early) and Athena was born weighing only 3 pounds, 11 ounces. It was the scariest day of our lives. I didn’t know what to expect. The NICU at Northside Hospital became our home for 38 long days.
The beginning was extremely hard, but the nurses were amazing and reassuring (I was a sobbing mess most days). I knew nothing about preemies or the NICU so everything was new and very scary. The sounds of the NICU - monitors beeping and whistling all day and night - are forever ingrained. I never realized how heartbreaking it would be to leave my new tiny baby behind as I went home to be with my husband and our toddler. It was excruciating. Seeing families leaving with their babies the day after their delivery had me in tears as I walked out of the hospital without my baby every day.
Slowly but surely, our little warrior baby was hitting her milestones! With the help of the wonderful nurses and doctors, Athena was discharged after almost six weeks in the NICU. Her big sister finally got to meet our new baby!
Nobody chooses this situation, but I knew the whole time that she was in the best place and in the best hands. Everyone was so compassionate and I know they truly cared not just about Athena but about our family too. We are forever grateful to them.
~ Lea Hayes
In the United States, 1 in 10 babies is born too soon, so experiences like Lea’s are, unfortunately, common. Parents with a baby in the NICU face a unique set of challenges, but continued medical advancements give them hope. You can give them hope too! If you have a friend or family member with a baby in the NICU, you can show your support a variety of ways. Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Offer to babysit. If the family has a child at home, or even pets, offer to babysit. Reassure your friend that his or her kids and pets will be well taken care of. NICU parents may feel guilty leaving the hospital to spend time at home but will also experience guilt when leaving home to spend time in the NICU. Plan fun activities for the little ones to put their mind at ease. Facetime, if you can, so children at home can “get to know” their new sibling.
- Help with household chores. Time will be valuable and in short supply as families split time between the hospital and home. Help them make the most of every minute by removing the burden associated with household chores like cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping and other errands. Don’t give them a chance to say no. Be specific with your offer: When can I drop off some groceries? How about if I get some laundry done while you’re at the hospital Tuesday?
- Listen. Under the best of circumstances, pregnancy and childbirth can create a great deal of physical and emotional stress. It’s okay if you don’t have the shared NICU experience; let your friend know you are a sympathetic ear and you’re here to listen.
- Consider a care package. Fill it with snacks, magazines, a journal, gift cards – anything to make travel to and from the hospital, or time spent in the NICU, easier.
- Suggest a support group. There are a variety of organizations that connect NICU families. Graham’s Foundation was founded to ensure no parent goes through the preemie journey alone. The Graham’s Foundation website offers a variety of resources for parents, health care professionals, friends and family, as well as a Wall of Hope where parents can share their stories.
- Keep the family in mind, even after the baby comes home. A NICU graduate may require more frequent or ongoing visits to health care professionals. Baby’s homecoming is a reason to celebrate, but the family will likely need support in the weeks and months to come.