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A stay in the NICU is a very hard phase to live through – for both the family and the baby. Many NICUs are not as family friendly as they like to think they are, and amenities and comforts for parents are often overlooked. Of course the main goal is to provide the babies with child-centered care, which is a good thing, but there can be a lot lacking for the families hanging in the balance – clinging to threads of hope for their babies.
Our youngest son, Jotham, was born with Spina Bifida. He was full-term, but was in the NICU for twenty-nine days due to complications from hydrocephalus. I walked into the NICU thirty minutes after giving birth to him, and didn’t walk outside again until he was leaving in my arms. Twenty-nine days straight was a long time in a very hard place, and yet I met other parents that had been there for much, much longer.
Some NICUs put multiple babies in one room with privacy curtains to pull between bassinets. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for a parent to be near their baby, and often the facilities like this don’t allow parents to stay overnight. If a family is fortunate enough to be in a facility with private rooms, there is usually a pull-out couch or recliner for staying overnight, although bathroom facilities are generally lacking since the patients don’t need a toilet. We were thankful to have a private room with a couch to sleep on, enabling me to stay with Jotham for his whole NICU stay.
We learned many things during Jotham’s NICU stay, not the least of which was how much we’re loved! Our friends and family bent over backwards for us. Without them, we never would have made it through with much sanity left (we’ve needed the remaining sanity for the all the PICU stays we’ve been subjected to since ?).
Here’s a list of five things that were helpful to us during our time in the NICU. If you think of more ideas, please leave a comment at the bottom of this post!
#1 – Bring Them Food
We had friends calling us saying, “I’m headed your way and picking up lunch – what sounds good?” We were in a state of mind where chewing on cardboard would have been fine with how hungry we were, so having food placed in our hands made us remember we needed food, and gave us energy to keep going. Many of the meals that came from friends are etched in my memory, and it’s probably because they were one of the few bright spots in each day as the “NICU rollercoaster” whipped us around. The hospital cafeteria got old really fast, so the take-out and homemade foods were delicious.
I often found myself starving between 11 PM and 1 AM, and the cafeteria had very weird hours at that time. Friends brought us a variety of snacks that tasted so good in the middle of the night – things like fresh fruit, almonds, nut and protein bars, juices, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.
#2 – Bring Them Comforts
Our friends brought little necessities like nail clippers, lip balm (hospitals are so dry), hair ties and a hair brush. Our trip to the NICU was not planned, so my hospital bag was not comprehensive. Flip-flops for the community shower were a must, and slippers for the room made me much more comfortable.
Several friends brought notebooks or journals, and I used them for making notes, writing questions for doctors, tracking research as issues came up, and recording/processing events.
#3 – Visit, Call, and Text
If you’re unsure about visiting (yes, hospitals can be awkward), don’t let that hinder you from just popping in for a quick “Hi!” and to drop off a snack or flowers. Being there for a minute or two can be very meaningful, and unless you’re a very close friend that can read the family well, you should not plan to visit for a prolonged amount of time anyway.
Always check before dropping in (especially if momma is pumping or breastfeeding. It takes a lot of time each day to establish baby’s milk supply, and too many visitors can hinder that). Ask if they’re up for a visit, and if there’s any hesitation, try again another time. Since doctors do their rounds in the morning, it’s a good idea to time your visit for after the doctors have been through.
Not a day went by that we weren’t contacted in some way, whether it was an in-person visit, a phone message, or a text. We posted Facebook updates regularly, and every comment on each post was so meaningful. Although we didn’t have the strength to respond to everyone, it meant so much to know our friends and family were thinking of and praying for us.
If you take the time to visit the NICU in person, you will have to “scrub in” to be admitted to the floor (which usually means standing over a sink for two minutes, while scrubbing your hands and arms with a Chlorhexidine solution). Every hospital has different rules about young visitors, so if you’re considering bringing a child, be sure to call ahead and check their visiting policies first. Children under 16 were only allowed to visit Jotham if they wore a surgical mask into his room. It took a few days for our older kids to be willing to wear masks, and our 2-year-old took some liberties with where he wore it when he finally agreed to follow the rules. ?
When there’s a surgery or procedure scheduled, check with your friends to see if they’d like some company in the waiting room. We were so thankful for the visits during surgeries. Be prepared to make your exit at any given moment, though. When the child is in recovery, hospital protocol usually only allows the parents to be with the child.
#4 – Keep Life Going Outside the NICU
Since it’s a “twilight zone” inside the hospital, it’s very hard to keep up with normal responsibilities on the outside. Our church asked for a list of trusted babysitters so they could organize child care for our older kids. Friends also helped with things like mowing the lawn and doing laundry so Micah could be at the hospital as much as possible.
#5 – Give Them Money and Gift Cards
It is so expensive to have life’s normal routine disrupted by the NICU. Food costs, travel expenses, missed work, etc, all contribute to destroying the budget. We received very generous gifts that allowed Micah to take extended time off work, and prevented our finances from becoming another major stressor. Someone started a GoFundMe for us, and maintained it with regular updates, and we were gifted with gift cards for stores, nearby restaurants, and gas stations that were invaluable.
Another great cash gift we received was a large wad of small bills for the hospital vending machines! Sometimes the vending machines were the only good source for drinks and emergency snacks, and not many accepted credit cards. ?
It may go without saying, but when helping a friend with any of the above, don’t expect to get a thank you note (unless you offer to help write them). Thank you notes are not a priority in the moment, and they shouldn’t be.
What are more ways we can help friends and family get through a hospital stay more comfortably?
What has been meaningful to you while in-patient, or how have you helped others?
Sarah blogs from the red rocks and sunny skies of southern Utah, where she lives with her husband and three beautiful children. With dark chocolate always on hand, she keeps busy caring for her energetic kids and the youngest's special needs. Learning to be thankful for the hard, and choosing to embrace the circumstances God has given her, she gives voice to the imperfections of life, claiming grace and spreading hope.