It’s the email that appears repeatedly in my inbox, the same message spelled out in different words each time from various kind hearted people around the country. Their friend or family member has just had a baby prematurely and while their stories are not all the same they each want to know “What can I do to help?”
I answer them back and always in my reply I tell them how kind they are to want to help because I know what those new parents are feeling.
These are not hard and fast rules, just some suggestions taken from the kindness that other people offered to me when I was the one sitting by my daughter’s side in the NICU every day for months. I was, and still am, deeply touched by the love and generosity of everyone who stood by us during such a scary and uncertain time. Here is what I might say are the things that meant much to me:
Acknowledgement: There is a debate among preemie mamas themselves, some want to be congratulated on the birth of their little one and some want no such thing. But I think we universally want our newborn child to be acknowledged. For me personally, my room overflowed with flowers and I swung (a bit hormonal from just having given birth) between being feeling comforted that so many people loved and cared about us and were welcoming Scarlette with such beauty and an irrational fear that maybe so many people were sending flowers like they do for a funeral, because they all thought that she was going to die.
Regardless, I appreciated greatly that so many people acknowledged my daughter and celebrated her birth because the truth was, she weighed one pound, eight ounces and the possibility that she might die was very real and near. And if that were to be our story, I wanted her to be known. I didn’t want her to exist just in the confines of the hospital walls but in the hearts of everyone who would otherwise have loved her had we wheeled out of the hospital with her.
Food: One night we arrived home from the hospital, exhausted and emotionally spent. On my front porch sat a cooler and in it a week’s worth of frozen meals and directions for each, along with a sweet note from a girlfriend. I’m not sure she even knows how touched I was by that gesture. Not only was it so helpful to have our freezer stocked, I really appreciated that she didn’t place any social expectations on me. In the early weeks after Scarlette’s birth I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I was in pain physically from the c-section and in my heart from the situation and I just honestly could hardly carry on a conversation. That was such a gift, both the meals and the kindness she extended in giving it freely so that I didn’t have to entertain.
Another friend did the same for us after we were discharged and that was also such a gift because those first few weeks home with a preemie is just like having a newborn. No time for cooking or things like sneaking in a shower! If you would make a meal for a new mom just home from the hospital, think of your preemie-mom friend in the same way when they celebrate their hospital discharge.
Gift Cards: Some friends made some arrangements to help us without my knowledge and one day I opened the mail to find a box full of gift cards for restaurants that were within walking distance of the hospital and gift cards to our local grocery store as well as gas cards. In the middle of a pile of hefty hospital bills, it was such a blessing to us.
Preemie-centric gifts: I didn’t want typical baby gifts, such as newborn sized clothes or baby bottles, at least not right after she was born. I was terrified to open them, afraid that they would never be used and then I’d just have reminders everywhere of what could have been. What should have been. Then someone gave me a tiny quilt square made of the softest fabric. It was meant for me to sleep with, then to tuck in next to Scarlette in her isolette so that she could keep my scent with her as a measure of comfort. It allowed for me to do something that made me feel like a mom in a foreign environment and I appreciated that.
Another kind friend sent a special dress made just for micro-preemies and though Scarlette was so tiny that she still took about 8 weeks to fit into them, it was nice to have something sweet to dress her in when the time came. Other friends knitted beautiful, soft, tiny hats that kept Scarlette’s head warm and had the nurses smiling at her “style.”
Parking Passes/Transporation: This is something I had never thought of but it is expensive to park at hospitals where the parking garage charges a daily rate. That can add up when your child is in the NICU for an extended period of time, such as our 156 days. Someone (a preemie mom herself) gifted us passes when we were at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and I thought that was such a considerate, thoughtful gesture that was incredibly helpful financially.
Additionally, I wasn’t allowed to drive for two weeks after my c-section but my husband had to return to work before then. I am so grateful to the friends and family members who took me to the hospital each morning so that I could see my daughter.
Care Packages: You can fill this with instant coffee, hand sanitizer, magazines, etc. There are some great ideas of wonderful care package gift items for preemie parents here. One of the best gifts that I received was a beautiful nursing gown. I kept it in the drawer of Scarlette’s isolette and used it each time we did kangaroo care. Another was a disposable camera that had a little note on it that said “Dear Nurse, Please Take My Picture For Mommy & Daddy!” I left that in Scarlette’s room as well and it was so fun for us to see all of the photos that they took in the moments we weren’t around.
Compliance: There are lots of rules when it comes to preemies. Wash your hands for this many minutes, don’t touch that, wear this mask, etc. They vary according to each baby’s particular set of needs but quietly abiding by the parents requests without questioning them is a huge help to alleviate any unnecessary stress. Our hospital didn’t allow any visitors outside of grandparents. It was a bummer because even my sister didn’t get to meet my daughter until her discharge. I often saw extended family members pester preemie parents while in the waiting room about not being able to visit but the thing is, it wasn’t their rule and it was in place for the well-being of all of the babies. And I’m sure it didn’t help those already tense parents to have to diffuse that sort of situation.
Most preemies are sent home with rules about quarantine, especially during flu/RSV season. If a preemie parent asks you to wash your hands or declines to bring her little one to the family Thanksgiving gathering, please don’t be offended. It honestly isn’t personal, it’s just that even though these babies are no longer living in the hospital, they are still incredibly fragile and rules like that are in place for their safety. Trust me, we WANT to show off our precious new baby! We’re not being over-protective or rude, we just really never want to go back to that hospital if we can help it.
Compassion: This is a ever-changing, shifting shape to fit the needs of the person towards whom it is directed. For me, it meant that I needed loved ones to give me my space, to understand that my silence was because holding back ever present sobs stole all of my words. For others it means a listening ear as they speak their grieving aloud.
I think the greatest gift that you can give a family in those fearful moments after an unexpected premature delivery is love. “I’m sorry this happened. I love you. How can I help?”
In fact, I think that is the greatest gift you can give always.
(And also, never tell a preemie mom that she’s lucky to be getting some sleep. Seriously, just don’t do it.)