How Can I Help Someone in the NICU? 5 Questions to Consider

November 18, 2013

With the premature birth of your friend’s baby you may be at a loss for what to say or what to do for her and her family. Maybe you have never met anyone who had a premature baby and you’re faced with some confusing questions. One of the best ways you can help a friend going through the experience of premature birth is to be well informed. My experience after having three premature babies is that there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty and a preemie mom’s circle of friends may not know what to say and avoid too many questions for fear of saying the wrong thing. To alleviate any feelings of uncertainty you may have, here are five questions you may be wondering and my responses, which I hope in turn will assist you in being confident in your ability to support your friend.

Five Questions to Consider

1. Will my friend’s baby survive?   In North America, most premature babies do survive their premature birth. A full-term pregnancy lasts 40 weeks, but premature birth is considered any delivery prior to 37 weeks. Premature babies who arrive at 23 weeks gestation or later will live in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) until they are well enough to go home. Keep in mind a 23-weeker will likely have a longer NICU journey than a 35-weeker, but each baby is unique and no baby’s NICU stay is ever exactly alike. Remember these babies need time and patience to fully develop. By understanding this, you will be able to support your friend very well.

2.  When will the baby come home?  Often-times you can anticipate your friend’s baby to be arriving home right around their original estimated due date. If the baby was born extremely early, say 23 weeks to 27 weeks, it is likely they will have at least a 3 months’ stay. Sometimes there will be health scares and uncertainty. Should your friend’s baby have any greater health complications, know that the baby may require hospitalization well beyond the expected due date. Knowing this, please keep in mind it is best not to ask “when will the baby come home?”, as this question can leave a parent feeling overwhelmed and more often than not in the early days the answer will be, “I don’t know.”

3.  How can I help while the baby is living in the hospital?  When I was in the hospital with my preemies, what I needed was a phone call from a friend or a visit at the place I was staying. Many friends came through for me and it helped me feel some normalcy in my very abnormal life at the time. If you can drive out to the hospital and bring your friend some home-made sandwiches or a care package of pre-packaged snacks and drinks, you’ll help ensure she is eating and keeping well for her baby. If you can’t physically be where your friend is, send her a quick email, tell her you are thinking of her and share some of the regular every day stories of your life. It will help her feel connected to “reality” outside a hospital ward. And last, but definitely not least, remember to send your friend a congratulatory note and card welcoming the newborn. Remember, although the baby has arrived early, it is still something to be celebrated!

4.  The baby is coming home soon! How can I help?  Ask your friend’s mother or family what needs to be done. Are there any final finishing touches needed on the baby’s bedroom? Is there a special piece of equipment you can arrange to pick up and have ready at the house? There is a lot to prepare when a baby is being discharged from the NICU and if you can help, you’ll alleviate some of the new pressures of bringing home the baby.

Carolyn's best friend waited patiently to meet Carolyn's firstborn, preemie son.

Carolyn’s best friend waited patiently to meet Carolyn’s firstborn, premature son.

5.  What can I do for my friend when the baby gets discharged from the hospital?  If you’ve done any or all of the above to this point, you’ve done well. Your friend will feel confident she can count on you for support when needed. Once the baby comes home your friend’s family will need some space to adjust to being outside the hospital. If they were in the hospital for several weeks or months, they can feel a bit scared and worried about going it alone. Give them some space, but let them know you are there if they need you. While they are getting used to being home, consider making some meals and freezing them. Drop them off throughout the week without being asked and you’ll really help them out. The parents of a premature baby will be consumed with figuring out how to care for their babies without 24-hour nursing care and likely taking the baby to appointments, so if you can help them skip the step of meal preparation once in a while you’ll be in their good books for life.