How To Support A Loved One Who Has A Baby In The NICU

Welcoming a new soul into the family is a huge feat. It's a magical time to celebrate, adjust, rest, and recover. But when a newborn must spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) due to being born prematurely, having health issues, or difficulty breathing, this special time quickly becomes quite scary. All new parents require communal support and care after having a baby and when a baby lands in the NICU, that support is needed more than ever. "Parents are very frightened," Jeanette Doherty, a social worker who specializes in the NICU at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, told Today's Parent. "They're processing a huge amount of information at once, and they also have a lot of practical needs in the background."


While family and friends may feel helpless upon learning that their loved ones have a baby in the NICU, there's a lot that can be done to reassure the parents that whatever happens, they won't go through it alone. Nearly half a million babies born in the U.S. end up in the NICU each year (via Parenting), so those who have been there before are readily able to share what families need most during that time.

Be there for the older kids

It's an emotional adjustment for siblings when a new baby enters the picture and if that baby is in the NICU, older children likely feel even more confused and uncertain as their routine is jolted. They may also feel disappointed that they aren't able to hold their newborn sibling during the NICU stay; and, as children are highly intuitive, they're also apt to pick up on their parents' worry and stress levels during this tender time. So, if you're looking to offer a helping hand, step in and take care of the other children in the family.


"Often, NICU parents are torn between wanting to be at the hospital with their baby who was just born and wanting to be at home for their other kids," Deepa Cruz, R.N., a nurse and lactation consultant, told Well+Good. This could look like rides to school, day dates to the park, or preparing special gift baskets full of activities and snacks for the kids (via Today's Parent). The children will feel the love and intention — as will the parents. Not much touches a mother as much as a close friend caring for her children as though they were their own.

Take charge of meals

When parents are practically living at the hospital to be near their newborn in the NICU, they understandably tire of the cafeteria food (via Today's Parent). Sending takeout to the hospital at dinner time and a pizza to the house for the older children and their caretaker will take a big weight off the parents' shoulders. If you aren't sure what the family's schedule is like and would rather not pester them to find out, purchase a few gift cards to their favorite restaurants to be used at their convenience.


If the mother is pumping breastmilk for her baby in the NICU, she will be extra hungry and in need of nutrients that support healthy lactation. Bake a batch of lactation cookies or muffins, which are beloved by breastfeeding mothers around the globe. This nourishing recipe from Bon Appétit should do the trick. The key ingredients are galactagogues — which are said to boost milk supply.

Celebrate the family with gifts

Though very little will feel normal about having a baby in the NICU, it's important for the baby to be celebrated just the same. While the newborn gifts you would bring upon visiting the new parents should perhaps be saved for the baby's homecoming, thoughtful gifts and tokens of love for the parents will be deeply appreciated. Anything to make their hospital stay more comfortable is a safe choice — slippers, soft blankets, treats from a local bakery, soothing herbal teas, phone chargers, nice water bottles, or wireless earbuds (via Today's Parent).


Shirts designed for newborn skin-to-skin care could also be great once the baby is strong enough to be held by mom and dad. "These shirts ensure that they can create enough of an opening to hold their baby directly on their chest, which is something that both mom and dad can do," Cruz explained to Well+Good.

Be a shoulder to cry on

If you don't have experience with the NICU, it may be difficult to know what questions to ask and how to best support the new parents emotionally. Preventative measures need to be taken to avoid postpartum depression when a mother has a healthy baby, so when navigating the NICU, she needs more support than ever. Today's Parent recommended being particularly careful with your language and not prying.


Always ask the mother if she feels like talking first and perhaps she will very much need to talk about what's going on or she may need a break and to be mentally refreshed by other topics. "They may really want to share with you how much weight the baby gained that day or how they're doing on certain good days, or they may really want to vent on some terrible days. But they also may not want to talk," Cruz told Well+Good.

Help with errands and domestic duties

Parents of a baby in the NICU likely won't be able to remember many of their duties and commitments outside of the hospital in the early weeks. Stepping in and thinking for them so they don't have to is a less obvious gift that leaves a huge impact. "You might ask if you can help walk their dog or get them groceries or even come do laundry for them," said Cruz to Well+Good. "It's about trying to restore balance when there's imbalance going on."


Take their mail inside for them, take out the trash at home, run their older children to activities and sports practice, and take charge of any other less-than-emergent duties that may fall by the wayside. Perhaps they weren't able to finish the nursery before the baby's birth. Coming home to a completed room would be a beautiful surprise (via Today's Parent).

Keep the support going

As most people in challenging health circumstances will share, the flood of support that initially comes in does begin to eventually fade. People must understandably go on with their lives, but if a loved one's time in the NICU is extensive, the family will continue to need emotional and practical support. Continue to check in and ask if they need anything, even if it's just an ear to vent to. "As it goes on, it actually gets more difficult for parents, because one partner has to return to work and the other kids in the family still need to get back to their routine," Doherty told Today's Parent.


The parents will likely also need to grieve what they've lost — a typical newborn stage — and processing these feelings with a trusted friend can ease the traumatic aftereffects (via Parenting). Connecting with mutual friends of the family and communicating that the need for help is still important. Try to lead the way in sharing responsibilities to keep the family afloat.