Sibling love is a tough journey for any family and even harder when you have a baby in the NICU. Learning to manage your own emotions, as well as the guilt and stress that comes with having a medically fragile child, can come at a large cost. When you add siblings into the mix, the road becomes even more treacherous. It is critical to pause and reflect on the new family dynamic you are experiencing.
Preparing for the NICU Visit: Explaining a Big Situation to a Little Mind
Siblings need a lot of preparation, information, reassurance and support when a new baby makes its debut in a family and even more when the baby is in the NICU.
If your hospital allows sibling visitation, consider these ideas to ease the anxiety and misconceptions the sibling may have:
Describe where the baby will be in the NICU, and discuss the sights, sounds, wires, monitors and other babies they will see.
- Give your child a concrete idea of the size of the baby. Have pictures to show the sibling or draw a picture of what the child might see attached to the baby when in the NICU.
- Read books together that are directly related to siblings and the NICU process. While reading, talk open and honestly about what the sibling may see to ease any anxiety that may come up. The stress a sibling feels may often be overlooked. Here are a few suggestions. Further recommendations can be found on our sibling support page.
- Empower the sibling with ideas they can do during the visit to connect with the baby (talk to the baby, touch the baby if possible). Encourage them to draw a picture for the baby that can be hung on the isolette or wall if permitted.
Tips for a Successful NICU Visit
Siblings don’t always have to wait until baby comes home to get to know their baby brother or sister. Bonding as a family can happen in the NICU too, with a few adjustments.
- Find out the NICU rules for sibling visits and discuss these with your child.
- Plan the length of the visit according to the child’s age and attention span.
- Introduce the sibling to the nurses and doctors to help them feel important and part of the baby’s care.
- Allow children time to take in the experience and warm up to the baby.
- After each visit debrief with your child, ask how they are feeling, listen, and address any questions or misconceptions they might have. Children often think they may have caused the baby to be in the NICU. Listening and asking questions may help avoid this tough emotion.
Making Siblings Feel Special During This Difficult Time
Consistency is key to help older siblings with this transition.
- Keep routines and caregivers consistent. As much as possible keep meals, snacks, naps, and extracurricular activities on a normal schedule. If the child goes to daycare let the teacher know the situation and keep him/her updated on the sibling’s emotional well-being.
- Set behavior limits as usual. It can be tempting to relax the rules, but children thrive on clear and consistent boundaries, especially when things are not operating as normal.
- Develop a predictable NICU schedule so your children know when you may be home.
- Spend a little time each day telling the sibling something about the baby that happened that day so they feel a bond with their brother/sister (discuss if a new monitor was removed, the baby’s weight that day).
- Have a small birthday party at home for the baby so the sibling can feel part of the celebration of a new family member.
- Spend time with each sibling, even if it’s just 10 minutes per day. They need this time and so do you.
- If you have older siblings, start a journal with your child, writing notes back and forth. Invite them to tell you anything they are feeling and ask questions to prompt them to open up to you.
Setting Realistic Expectations
Be gentle with yourself and your children during this time. All your emotions will change frequently as you go through the NICU experience.
- Understand that you will feel torn between being with your baby in the NICU and being at home with your family. Give yourself permission to be fully present wherever you are – whether in the NICU or home.
- Journal your thoughts and emotions, good and bad, to release them from your head. Dump it all on paper and leave it there.
- Lean on your family, friends, and support groups for guidance. Ask for what you need and know they will feel grateful for direction and to help.
- Put on your own oxygen mask first and practice radical self-care.
- Navigating the world of the NICU is a tough journey when you have siblings to care for at home. Sometimes taking a step back, focusing on just loving your children, and savoring the moment with each of them can go a long way in making everyone feel safe, important, loved, and supported.
For more information on siblings and the NICU please visit our Sibling Support page.