The Power of Peer Support in the NICU

November 18, 2019

Forming relationships in the NICU isn’t easy. Families sometimes aren’t allowed to speak with one another in the unit, only in the hallways. They want to respect each other’s privacy and hesitate to ask too many questions. And sometimes parents don’t have the emotional energy to initiate a conversation with a stranger.

Support groups and special events give families the opportunity to socialize outside of those restrictions. They meet other families going through the same thing they are, they get to know one another, and sometimes they even become the closest of friends.

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Grace Lynn in the NICU. Photo courtesy Hillary Sullivan

Hillary Sullivan and Vanessa Ibarra delivered their babies on the same day, under many of the same circumstances. Hillary’s daughter, Grace Lynn, was born at 26 weeks gestation, after Hillary suffered a bout of severe preeclampsia. Vanessa’s son, Liam, was born at 24 weeks after Vanessa spent a month on hospital bed rest due to blood clots and then went into premature labor. The two women spent day after day in the NICU, unaware of each other’s presence at the nearby isolette.

It was a Hand to Hold Mother’s Day event that brought the two moms together. With encouragement from their nurses, the reluctant moms attended the event with their own mothers. There they sat down and began exchanging stories, and two quickly realized that not only were their babies born on the same day, but they were actually NICU neighbors. The two became fast friends.

“It was amazing to connect with someone going through the NICU experience at the same time with our babies being in the same nursery,” said Hillary. “Thursdays quickly became my favorite days because I was able to see our amazing Hand to Hold Ambassador, other NICU families and my new friend.”

Liam in the NICU. Photo courtesy Vanessa Ibarra.

Since the families couldn’t spend unlimited time in the NICU, they each felt comforted that the other was looking in on their baby, sending encouraging texts to let them know how they were. When Vanessa was there with Liam, she would check on and say a prayer for Grace. When Hillary was there with Grace, she would do the same for Liam.

Parents are undoubtedly under increased stress in the NICU. While they may be surrounded by friends and family, these traditional support networks don’t always fully comprehend or understand what the parent is going through. Some parents may also be physically isolated from support networks.

This is where peer support fills in the gaps. Peer support programs in the NICU like Hand to Hold’s give parents a safe space to share their fears, get validation on their feelings and receive the confirmation that they are not alone. While both Vanessa and Hillary received individual support from their Hand to Hold Family Support Specialist, Suzy, and the Hand to Hold in-hospital Ambassador program, it was the connections and friendships they made at support group and at the bedside that were really special.

“If I hadn’t met Hillary, I honestly think I would have been so lost during our NICU stay,” said Vanessa. “When I met Hillary, I had someone to vent to, someone to confide in, someone to lean on. I don’t think she has a clue how much her support meant to me. She always had the right words to say and always had a huge smile on her face.”

Photo courtesy Vanessa Ibarra

The families continued their friendship once they had been discharged. They planned play dates to help give each other a little relief from the isolation of RSV season. “It was extremely helpful to have a friend to share and compare stories and situations after we were discharged from the NICU,” said Hillary. “You are overwhelmed with the task of caring for a medically fragile baby, and you have so many questions that don’t need to be addressed with your child’s pediatrician. Vanessa became someone that I relied on for all the questions pertaining to Grace.”

Today the two moms text each other frequently, sharing pictures of their babies, now 18 months, and bouncing questions off one another about their babies’ milestones and development. Their friendship has been one positive outcome from two terrifying experiences.

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Vanessa and Hillary at the Baylor University Medical Center NICU reunion. Photo courtesy Hillary Sullivan.

“Meeting Vanessa was life-changing,” said Hillary. “It was comforting to have someone in the NICU that I knew and could chat with while in this situation.”

“I have grown to love the Sullivan family,” said Vanessa. “I love Grace as if she were my own. I always admired how strong Hillary was through her NICU journey. Even now, she always has the right words to say to make me feel better.”

Peer support in the NICU offers parents the connection they desperately need when going through a difficult situation. Vanessa and Hillary both hesitated to reach out to other parents, unsure if the attempt at connection was welcome. But once they came together, they witnessed first-hand the power of peer support. “Having that friendship and someone to lean on felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” said Vanessa.

Hillary believes the connections she made in the NICU and in support group helped her heal from the trauma of the NICU. “While I had lost so much (in terms of expectations on pregnancy and delivery and new parenthood), I gained lifelong friends.”

Peer support in the NICU is proven to help parents become more confident caregivers and help them know they are not alone.

Help us ensure families like Hillary’s and Vanessa’s have the opportunity to access peer support in the NICU and in the weeks, months and years after.

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