Blessed be the Tie that Binds: Supporting Family Bonding in the NICU

September 23, 2015
mother and son bonding in NICU

The power of a mother’s touch and a son’s grasp provides comfort for both.

On a Sunday morning, I became a NICU mom three times over.  On that day, time stood still as an emergency c-section ushered my 29-week triplets into the world.

Then came Monday…and as abruptly as time had stopped, it moved again. Its pace quickened from a surreal slow motion to an emotional whirlwind as I processed the events of the previous day.

In an instant our family had doubled in size.  Yet, it had never felt more fractured and disjoined. Each of our four children now existed as an island of one; protected yet separated from one another by hospital walls and incubator glass.

This separation was most difficult for our 10-year-old daughter who was dealing with feelings of fear and isolation often experienced by NICU siblings. Having a sibling in the NICU is difficult at any age, but the stress can be overwhelming for older siblings who are more aware of the frightening realities of the situation.  These feelings are further amplified for siblings of multiples.

As much as we wanted to shelter our daughter, we knew that including her in her siblings’ journey was the best form of support.  More importantly, we knew that the greatest gift that we could give all of our children was the gift of each other.   So, each day we nurtured the sibling and family bonds that would forever bind our family together.   And before we knew it, the six of us had become a family – no longer fragmented and no longer disjoined.

Below are actions that were integral in establishing an early and strong NICU bonding experience for our family:

Breathe.  Becoming a NICU parent involves an intense initiation process.  Your world changes in an instant, and the minutes and hours following that change can feel like a frightening rollercoaster ride.  Take time to breathe and absorb the situation. It was only after I paused and allowed myself time to process everything that I could clearly see my family’s present and plan for our future.

Additionally, a clear mind helped me see beyond the wires and tubes and connect with the three precious miracles that lay inside those isolettes.  It also helped me provide their older sibling with the information and emotional support that she needed to stay strong throughout the journey.

older sibling bonding with preemie siblings FaceTime

Siblings “meet” via FaceTime.

Harness the power of technology.  As luck would have it, our triplets were born during the onset of RSV season and a national flu vaccine shortage.  As a result, our older daughter was not cleared to visit the NICU until two weeks after the babies were born.  Two weeks felt like an eternity for her as she worried about the babies’ health and the many frightening unknowns of the NICU.

To help her through this difficult time, my husband coordinated with our NICU nurses to schedule FaceTime visits with the babies.  These visits were wonderful experiences for our daughter and I recommend them highly. Not only was she able to visit with each of her siblings in real time, she was also able to interact with the wonderful medical staff that was caring for them.  The NICU was no longer a scary unknown, but had become a safe place for her siblings.

These visits were also beneficial for our preemies as my daughter’s voice was a dose of familiarity for them.  We were amazed by how they would open their eyes and turn their heads toward the sound of her voice.  They clearly needed her just as much as she needed them.

In addition to FaceTime visits, we also maintained a Tinybeans online journal to share updates with our family and friends.  Our older daughter loved reading these updates as they helped her learn about each baby’s personality. We also allowed her to post updates from some of our NICU visits so that she could participate in telling her siblings’ story.

sibling bonding through shared kangaroo care

Siblings enjoy quality time during shared kangaroo care.

Bridge the emotional gap between home and the NICU.  With babies in the NICU, one of the hardest things to adjust to is the heavy void that exists at home.  The silent nursery and empty cribs were constant reminders that our house no longer felt like home.

To help fill this void, we found ways to incorporate our NICU life into our home life.  We added the babies’ NICU schedule to our family calendar so that we felt a part of their day even when we couldn’t be with them. We coordinated dinnertime with the babies’ feeding schedule so that we could “share” a meal together. We called the NICU at bedtime and before school to wish the babies a good night and good morning.

Likewise, we incorporated our home life into our NICU life.   Each baby had their own special blankets from home to cover their isolette.  We took every opportunity to give the babies quality time together through shared kangaroo care.  We built story time and sing-alongs into our NICU visits.  My older daughter would bring artwork and her favorite storybooks to read to the babies.  By creating a sense of normalcy within the NICU, our children were able to connect and support each other in a way that only siblings can.

sibling bonding with NICU nurse support

From first introductions to graduation day, our NICU nurses were always there to support.

Allow your NICU nurses to support your family through the bonding process.  NICU nurses are truly angels with stethoscopes.  From the very second our babies entered the world, they became our family’s lifeline. They lovingly cared for three babies and a family that were fragile and weak. They built up our spirit and supported us through those tough early days. They answered our daughter’s many questions and patiently engaged her in her siblings’ care. They helped us grow confident in our interactions and prepared us for the road ahead. They helped us become a family in the most unlikely of places, and for that we are eternally grateful.

Forty-six days after beginning our journey, our family emerged from the NICU strong, connected, and ready to begin our new life together.  I am so glad that we pushed passed the inclination to put life on hold while we muddled our way through the experience.  Our NICU journey is a special season in our family’s life that we will always treasure for the miracles witnessed and the memories made.

How did you encourage sibling and family bonding during your family’s NICU stay?