How to Set Boundaries During & After the NICU

May 16, 2022

setting boundaries, NICU, hand to hold

As many states lift COVID precautions in favor of a “new normal,” many folks are left wondering how to navigate the pandemic. “How do I protect myself? How do I protect my family? Is it safe to no longer wear a mask?”

On top of the many questions around COVID safety that you as an individual can take, you may also be wondering how to interact with family, friends, and other loved ones that want to visit or meet your infant. For NICU families, there is the heightened risk of your baby having a suppressed immune system or being immunocompromised which places them at greater danger of infection and complications. This article will focus on how to have conversations about safety with others in addition to several tips for navigating social interactions.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are rules of engagement that you can make for how you would like others to treat you or someone else. To build and keep relationships that have a foundation of healthy communication, people must set boundaries to make sure that their needs or preferences are met. When you respect someone else’s boundaries, that can help the other person feel safer, more supported, and able to move forward with their goals. These are some of the steps that you can take when using boundaries in your relationships:

1. Think of a boundary.

Example: “I would like for my parents to get tested for COVID-19 before meeting their grandchild.”

2. Communicate the boundary.

Example: “Can you please get tested for COVID-19 before meeting the baby? It would help me feel supported in protecting their health, especially since their immune system is not fully developed yet.”

3. Reflect on the other person’s response.

4. Enforce the boundary if necessary.

Example: “We agreed that you were going to get a COVID-19 test before visiting, but you have not made plans to do so. Can you please get a rapid test from the pharmacy? You will need to get a negative test result in order to visit.”

5. Evaluate the relationship based on the other person’s response.

6. Revisit the boundary and modify based on new circumstances or needs.


Tips for Communicating Boundaries Regarding COVID-19

Plan for time.

Give the other person time to digest the conversation about boundaries. This is especially important for events, scheduling, and simply giving the other person time to process the boundary and any feelings that come up for them. Usually, folks find that communicating sooner rather than later is helpful for the conversation being received better. People can find it hard to accommodate boundaries or process conversations a day before an event or the day of.

Choose a neutral time and space to talk.

If boundaries are brought up in an argument for example, it can be hard for the other person to receive the information without defensiveness. Try to choose a time and space where you and the other person are calm(er).

Focus on your intentions.

Others may not completely understand why you are making a boundary and that is ok. Instead of debating the science behind your decisions, it can be helpful to focus the conversation back to how the boundary will make you feel. For example, “I will feel safer if you can do this for me” or “I would feel supported in taking these steps to protect my baby.”

Do not assume.

Try to not make assumptions about how the other person will respond to your conversation about boundaries. The pandemic has thrown a lot of curveballs at us in these past 2 years and as such, a lot of people do not know what to do with competing information about precautions that change frequently and are not consistent across governments and the medical field. This will help you with setting more realistic expectations around how the other person will respond.

Try to practice a non-judgmental approach.

Try to approach the conversation from as much of an open and non-judgmental way as possible. People can feel stigma or shame if they think that they are being associated with negative messages such as thinking that they are being called dirty, diseased, or unwanted. The other person will pick up if you are being passive aggressive or hostile which is not conducive to boundary setting according to Nedra Glover Tawwab. For more guidance on how to set boundaries, read her insightful book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself.

Be consistent.

Nedra Tawwab also discusses in her book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace, that having consistency with boundaries is incredibly important for others taking you seriously. Folks may need frequent reminders of the boundary or to witness you consistently enforcing your boundary to respect the boundary.

Give yourself time for reflection.

Because conversations about boundaries can bring up difficult emotions for you, try practicing gentleness and compassion with yourself by leaving time after the conversation to process. Did you feel supported or validated by the other person? Were you surprised by their response? How would you like for the other person to interact with you and your baby in the future? Speaking with a therapist can help folks process their NICU experience and the difficult conversations that can come up around boundaries. To learn more about Hand to Hold’s counseling program and request an appointment, please visit our counseling page.

Take steps to protect yourself and your family.

Regardless of the other person’s response to your conversation about boundaries, take the precautionary steps that you have decided to keep your family safe. This may mean that you will need to limit the person’s access to yourself or your baby until y’all can reach an agreement.

Communicating boundaries can be a challenge, but voicing your family’s needs is an important step towards keeping everyone safe. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to immense loss of people’s lives, time, opportunities, and way of life. Because many of us are still grieving these losses, try to practice compassion with yourself and others as you explore what is best for your family. For additional help, visit the Hand to Hold resources for NICU parents or mobile app to access support at the palm of your hand.



Did you know? Hand to Hold offers free counseling services for parents and/or couples looking to process their birth experience or seek treatment for possible perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Learn more.