10 Ways To Support Families With A Baby In The NICU

A couple looks down at a small baby in a NICU incubator.
© andresr from Getty Images Signature via Canva.com

An estimated 10-15% of babies require a NICU stay. My son was one of them. Our time in the NICU felt isolating and overwhelming. At the same time, my husband and I felt incredibly loved and cared for by people who stepped up to help us. Sometimes, help came in ways we asked for; but more often, in ways we didn’t know we needed until someone offered.

It can be hard to know how to support a NICU family, especially if you haven’t lived it yourself. It can also be hard for NICU families who are in the thick of it to ask for help. But it is such an important time to make an effort and be present for parents navigating this experience. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to extend meaningful care and support. Below is a list of ideas to support parents with a baby in the NICU, both from my experience and other NICU moms I’ve met along the way.

1. Check in frequently, even if you don’t get a reply.

It is isolating to spend days, weeks, or months in the hospital. Send a card, text, or voicemail with the simple message that you are thinking about the parents. Check-in regularly to ask how Baby is doing. You might not always get a response, because days in the NICU can be all-consuming. But the gesture is an easy way to help parents feel less alone.

2. Be sensitive to parents’ grief.

A NICU stay comes with a lot of loss. The loss of a mom’s birth plan. The loss of many typical newborn “firsts.” The loss of control. The loss of future plans. There is a lot to grieve and process. Be aware that parents may not be themselves and will be carrying a heavy emotional load. Offer to be a non-judgmental listening ear to help them decompress.

3. Support the mom’s postpartum recovery.

Moms with babies in the NICU must often prioritize their baby’s care over their own postpartum care. Acknowledge mom’s recovery. Ask her how she is feeling postpartum. Offer to re-stock postpartum supplies, such as pads and toiletries. Gift her comfort items, such as a water bottle, blanket, or journal that she can keep in the NICU. (The best gift a friend gave me was a large scarf that doubled as a blanket and a pumping cover in the NICU.) Ask if she needs a ride to her own doctor’s appointments.

4. Make healthy food more accessible.

A day in the NICU is scheduled around baby’s care – rounds, feeds, meds, therapies, and more. It can be hard for parents to step away to grab a bite to eat. Help bring food to them by giving them a gift card to the hospital cafeteria or a meal delivery service. Send them non-perishable healthy snacks. If the family is local to you, drop off a homemade meal or two.

5. Offer to care for older siblings.

NICU parents can feel torn between spending time with their baby in the hospital, and spending time with any older children at home. It can create feelings of immense guilt and grief. Offer to take older siblings out for a special play date, or to babysit them at home. Help parents support their older children by telling them how brave they are, and what a great sibling they are being through this experience.

6. Offer to care for pets.

If parents need to step away from the NICU to care for pets, ask if there are tasks you can take on. These could include walking the dog, feeding a pet, or simply spending time with a pet who is experiencing more alone time, so the parents have one less thing to worry about that day.

7. Don’t stop including parents in gatherings.

You miss a lot in other people’s lives when you are in the NICU, and when you bring home a medically-complex child. Most NICU parents will tell you that they still want to be invited to things, even if they can’t go. Keep extending invites. Let the parents know its low pressure, that the invite is open if they need a break or distraction, and that you understand if they can’t make it.

8. Help prepare for Baby’s arrival home.

Right before Baby is discharged, there is often a flurry of to-dos to get the house ready. If you’re local, ask if you can help. That could look like: setting up a crib; stocking the nursery with diapers and other baby supplies; stocking the kitchen with groceries; giving the house a good clean; or setting up welcome home balloons, posters, or flowers to make discharge day extra special.

9. Respect boundaries.

One dynamic of a NICU stay – and bringing home a medically-complex baby – is navigating others’ expectations and setting boundaries. Many friends and family are eager to meet Baby, but mom and dad might not want visitors in the NICU. Once home, they might want to lay low for a while as a family and make up for lost time together. When they are ready for visits, there may be more rules than usual to keep baby safe. These might include no touching or kissing, washing your hands, wearing a mask, or quarantining after sickness or travel. By following boundaries, no questions asked, you show your support – and make it easy for parents to invite you in.

10. Make a donation to the cause.

One way to show support is to make a contribution in the baby or family’s honor. It could be a donation to a foundation that focuses on the baby’s diagnosis, to Ronald McDonald House Charities if the family is utilizing their services, or to the NICU itself. If the family is experiencing a significantly long and costly NICU stay, you could also organize or contribute to a Go Fund Me that benefits their baby directly.

One piece of common wisdom about offering help applies to families in the NICU. When you can, offer a specific type of help, rather than a general “let me know if I can help.” It shows extra thoughtfulness, and it is easier for overwhelmed parents to accept a specific offer presented to them. No matter what, know that any effort – big or small – will be meaningful.