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The NICU Part 2: Ridiculously Long List of Ways to Help a NICU Parent

Note: this is part two in an ongoing series about life as a long-term NICU parent. Find part 1 here.

Before we had kids, our friends’ daughter was in the NICU for heart surgery. They were almost 5,000 miles away and nothing seemed helpful to send, so we did absolutely nothing while the time slipped by. She healed and is an unstoppable toddler now, but letting her parents go through that without helping  at all remains something I regret.

Our sons lived in the NICU 122 days. My husband avoided the hospital at all costs, and I functioned in survival mode, so parts of everyday life fell by the wayside — the house fell apart, I couldn’t pay bills, it was tough to pretend to be “normal.”

holding handsThe NICU has been described as a roller coaster. Every good moment was followed by a bad one.The hospital where my boys stayed had an excellent support system, but it was still a lot to deal with. No matter how self-sufficient we were before the NICU, during and afterward we needed help. But, when we were stuck in the middle of the situation it was tough to articulate just what we needed.

Everyone is different, but chances are that something on this list, compiled from my experiences and those of other NICU parents, would be helpful for the NICU parent you know. Doing a single thing, no matter how small, makes a big impact. Please learn from our mistake and don’t wait for your friend or family member to ask for help, just do one thing.

Donate Blood

If you don’t know the NICU parent well but want to do something helpful, donate blood. Two people’s blood donations supported my twins until they were big enough to make their own efficiently.

Be a good friend

If you know the NICU parent well, the most important thing you can do is be there even though it may not seem like much at the time. You don’t have to say anything profound. Just be there. This is especially important when things go wrong. The NICU experience is tougher than it’s shown on tv, and there are far fewer happy endings. Be there for those moments when words are useless, even if you are far away.

Cut parents some slack

Parents try to get by as their child swings between life and death. I used to spend a minimum of eight hours at the NICU just for the chance to touch each of my children once, and it was weeks before I could hold them. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting, and it’s tough to remember little things like small chat, appointments, meetings, thank you cards, etc. I once sent a thank you to a friend, who messaged me insisting I never send her another thank you card. It was a huge relief.

Cut NICU parents some slack, and understand that it takes immense amounts of energy to even present the impression of normality.

isolette without ventilator
getting off the ventilator is a big milestone (Deek)

Celebrate those little Milestones

Preemie milestones are different from regular baby milestones. The tiniest things make a huge difference, but because people don’t know how huge they are, they don’t celebrate them. Take your cues from the parent, and congratulate them when the moments arrive.

Help build and maintain a support network

I was fortunate to already have an established group set up online for friends interested in my pregnancy when I went on bed rest. People did all the things we do in person to build a community around someone in pain, just online. If I didn’t understand something from rounds, people with medical backgrounds stepped in and explained.

They performed kind acts on this list despite being hundreds of miles away. So, despite having no friends in our physical community, I was surrounded by love and hope. Helping build or grow this type of community for your family member or friend with a child in the NICU can make them feel less isolated.

Help with chores

When your baby is in the NICU, you want to spend every waking minute you can with them. Cooking, cleaning, weeding, etc takes time away from that. I struggled to do the bare minimum. Not having to do even one of those chores would have let me have 20 more precious minutes with babies I wasn’t sure would survive.

So do a load of laundry, run the dishwasher, mow a lawn, harvest a garden, or gift maid service. Anything like that gives parents extra time with their child.

Feed Them

(pic by Alan Levine, flickr)

NICU parents don’t seem to take care of their own needs, but people have to eat. Dropping off food is a great way to make things easier. If you cook, make extra helpings and put them in a microwavable container for the parents. If you don’t cook, take over something from store that they can heat up, order take out, or utilize a meal delivery service if you are far away. If you do take food, an extra kindness is to include disposable utensils because that makes it easier to take the meal to the hospital if necessary.

Help with Pets

While I was at the hospital, my husband took care of our cat who needed medicine twice a day. When he travelled for a week, I had to cut my visits in half and come home to a lonely house that echoed of halted nursery preparations. If we had friends nearby who could have fed and drugged the cat, I could’ve just stayed at Ronald McDonald House and spent time with my sons.

Feeding a pet, walking a dog, checking in on a cat. . .these are small things that can mean a huge difference.

Help Set Up The Nursery/Car Seats

If you take the time to help set up the nursery, it takes another responsibility off the new parents’ shoulders and gives them more time to spend at the NICU. Or, offer to swap cars for the day with your friend, and take the car seat to a fire station to be installed. It’s another chore your friend won’t have to worry about and it’s free.

Buy a gift card or give cash

Gas cards or cash are perfect for parents because transportation costs add up fast. In the months my sons were in the NICU, my commute cost us $2,400. We hadn’t budgeted for this or for my lost wages.

Even without the financial hardship, it’s hard to remember to do little things like fill up the gas tank, eat, or hit the ATM when your mine is occupied. Having a gas card or extra cash in a wallet “just in case” is nice.

Help with a place to stay

a RMH kitchen with cooking supplies available 24 hrs
A 2-sided kitchen at RMH makes it easier to eat healthy on a NICU schedule (pic by deek)

A nurse or doctor at the NICU should talk to the parents about the Ronald McDonald House. Though affiliated with McDonalds, RMHs are nothing like the fast food chain. RMH is a healthy, safe, friendly, family-centered home for parents when their children are in the hospital. If you know that the NICU parent is staying at a RMH, call and donate a night’s stay for the person–you can do it anonymously. One night is anywhere from $15-$25, but not having to pay is a huge weight off that parent’s back.

If there is no RMH in the community, you can help by donating money for a hotel. Staying near your NICU baby is really important and for the baby and the parent. I cannot emphasize enough how awful it was to get a phone call that my child had just had a life-threatening crash and know that I was an hour away. Staying nearby can mean time to say good bye, or time to see your baby before emergency surgery.

Help with Older children

I have no idea how NICU parents with older kids survived. These families juggled the emotional and practical needs of older children with the needs of their NICU babies and their own emotional roller coasters.

To a person, each one spoke of the incredible people who helped with their older children by babysitting, hosting sleepovers, or taking them out for fun. If your child’s friend has a little brother or sister in the NICU, consider offering to have that child sleep over regularly or hosting him or her after school and for dinner to allow parents to spend time with their baby in the NICU or get much-needed sleep. Doing this  lets the friend spend some time in a “normal” home where tragedy doesn’t lurk under the surface.

A particularly helpful option is to take older siblings on a play date close to the hospital. Most hospitals limit visitors to those over 12 years old, and don’t allow any minors to visit during flu season. A playdate near the hospital means parents can visit their baby while the older sibling gets a chance to feel special, since he or she is often overshadowed.

Preemie clothes that actually fit

Micro-preemies tend to be long and thin, so the preemie outfits you get at stores like Babies R Us make them look like flying squirrels (late term preemies and those with ostomy bags, fit those outfits well, though) If your friend has a baby who is thin, consider shopping at an online store that specializes in micro-preemie clothes. Here are my three favorite: JPPPPTP.

No matter where you get your preemie clothes, make sure that the clothing does NOT zip. Zippers get in the way of all the wires and monitors–snaps and velcro are wonderful things.

Say Congratulations!

In all the uncertainty and fear that surrounds the birth of a micro-preemie, it is easy to set aside the fact that these parents have just had a baby. You may feel uncomfortable sending a gift or congratulations card when the birth of the child is tinged with sadness, but please send the gift or card anyway–it is so rare to feel like a “real” parent when you have to watch your child through plexiglass, and ask for permission to touch or hold him. A card or gift like one would have at a normal birth helps remind parents of the joy of their newborn.

Get a Gift for the NICU Nurses (chocolate is good)

Nurses keep our children alive, often know them better than we do, and pretty much run the NICU. I didn’t have the time or money to get them anything. So, it was nice when an aunt and uncle purchased an edible arrangement thanking them. You don’t need to get that fancy: pretty much anything chocolate disappears quickly (Note: I’ve met preemie parents who hated their nurses, so only do this if your friend likes their nurses).

Help with transportation (at least at first)

Most preemies are delivered via c-section because delivering them vaginally is too dangerous. For the first weeks after the c-section, mothers are not permitted to drive, but many will just to be with their babies (I am guilty of this). You can help your friend be safe by driving her to the hospital and/or home.

Get little things to help parents survive the NICU.

Pic by Zanegifting, flickr

The NICU operates 24 hours, so often by the time the parent leaves the hospital, stores are closed, and they’re exhausted. You can make their experience easier by dropping off any of the following little things to help:

  • Magazines & books – Because of HIPAA if the nursery is an old school open one, parents can’t be in the nursery while doctors are rounding on other children. This results in long waits to see their child. Something to read helps make that time less worrying.
  • Books to read to their baby – Reading to a baby is one of the few “normal” things NICU parents get to do. But don’t limit yourself to baby books that take 5 minutes to read because parents are often there for hours. I ended up reading The Phantom Tollbooth, Emma, and an anthology of Mike Royko columns (if they grow into grumpy old white men, it’s on me). My husband read Car and Driver Magazine. I’m not saying don’t get children’s books, just consider getting something parents want to read too.
  • Amazon (or other online store) gift card – I’m all for supporting local businesses, but Amazon is available 24/7 and delivers.
  • A nice water bottle — Moms are constantly told to hydrate so that they can more easily produce breast milk, but often aren’t allowed drinks in the NICU, so a water bottle they can swig when out of the nursery is a great solution.
  • A small cooler bag for breast milk – Every 4 hours, I pumped. It was one of the few things I could do to help my babies. A cooler bag lets that milk stay fresh on the way to  the NICU, where it goes in the freezer until the preemie can use it.
  • Hand lotion (antibacterial is awesome) – In the hospital, parents wash their hands constantly. My hands got so dry they cracked. A small bottle of hand lotion that fit in a purse was wonderful.
  • Hand sanitizer – Hospitals are breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses, and parents cannot visit their baby if they have even a hint of sickness, so sanitizing after shaking hands or hugging friends is important.
  • Portable Snacks – Often NICU parents forget to eat, and hospital cafeterias are expensive.
  • Notebook/journal – I went to rounds and wrote down everything I could. Later, I asked the nurses to explain it. Doing this let me make sense of the crazy language and customs of the bewildering world of the NICU. Journalling is also a nice place for parents to pin down fears and articulate their emotions so they don’t eat them alive.
  • a hoodie during kangaroo care (deek)
    a hoodie during kangaroo care (deek)

    Button up shirts a size too large – I stored a button up shirt in the drawer of my son’s isolette so that if I got there and found out one or both could kangaroo I was always prepared. The best kangaroo care shirts are cozy and soft: zip front hoodies, button up flannel shirts, think teddy bear innards and you’re close.

  • Cute art/framed pictures for shelves near the isolette – for a few months, this IS the equivalent of the baby’s nursery, and most hospitals will allow parents to put one or two personal touches up. If your friend’s hospital does not, a personalized blanket for the isolette is a nice touch. If the baby is older, a simple black and white head shot of family members is nice to tape to the inside of a crib.
  • Do you knit? Make something. . .a hat is good, blankets are great. It will make that crib or isolette more like home.
  • Travel sized toiletries (tooth brush & toothpaste, hairbrush, kleenex, chapstick, gum, wet wipes) – This allows parents who spend their waking hours either at the hospital or going to the hospital to take care of their hygiene easily.
  • Disposable digital camera (used one off of craigslist or something is fine) – A cheap digital camera lets nurses take pictures of the baby when mom and dad can’t be there. I learned the hard way that the camera must be digital. If the baby gets multiple X-rays and a film camera is stored under the isolette, the pictures get ruined. Ours did.

That’s all I’ve got.  If you have your own hospital experience or ideas, please share them. If you’re looking for ideas, I hope this helps. More than anything, please remember that just doing one small  thing can make a huge difference during those long weeks of on the NICU rollercoaster.

Note: Part 1 of this series can be found here, and part 3 can be found here.


Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

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  1. That is a fantastic list, Deek, thank you. The chores were the big thing for me; it was spring, and I love my garden, and having that fall apart too was just too much for my hormones to bear. Our neighbours came and did the lawn and my mom did some weeding, and that was better for my soul than even the freezer meals!
    Also, if your hospital has a social worker for NICU parents, ask them about parking passes. Ours did not give them out unless asked. Another one of the moms told us about it; they were able to give us a two week pass, it saved us hundreds. There are all sorts of resources NICU parents don’t have time to seek out, but a local friend or family member could take the lead on snooping around for them.
    For the artsy friends, maybe see if you can come in and do baby portraits for your friend, and if it can be arranged, the other families. In the private family room those of us who could temporarily detach our babies from their wires could nurse in (or pump), there were some charcoal portraits of previous babies someone must have donated (up with all the stories of encouragement previous parents had written once they got out). Sometimes what I was looking at in the bassinet was so awful, with the tubes and blood and bandages, I didn’t want pictures. I told myself would get them when he was out and whole in 5…10…20 days…until poof no more newborn. We do have some pictures, fortunately my husband took some with his phone, but not the cozy glowing ones of other moms with newborns. A couple pictures or drawings of the baby staged (within the constraints posed by the medical equipment) by someone with an eye for it could really help someone remember what might not be the Anne Geddes version of newbornhood, but what is the only version their baby will have, and deserves to be cherished, too.

    1. I really like the idea of a beautiful photo in the NICU. We don’t have any, and I always feel a little twinge when I see term babies’ beautiful pictures. The boys were still in their isolettes at Christmas time, and the night nurses covered a nursing chair with a sheet, and lay them next to each other so they were almost cuddling–I love that photo, and really appreciated their willingness to take time to get it.

  2. This is a great list. When my son was in the NICU, I was extremely grateful for two things. First, that we lived less than 10 minutes from the hospital. This allowed me to sleep at home at night and to know I could be at the hospital in minutes if I got that dreaded call. Thankfully I never did. The second was that the NICU nurses at our hospital were awesome. When I was there visiting my son, I watched them as they took care of the other babies and it was clear that they truly cared for them. This reassurance was invaluable to me, knowing that I couldn’t always be there and would have to trust them to take care of my son in my absence. They also reassured my husband and me that we could visit any time, call any time, and there were no stupid questions. They would take pictures of my son when I wasn’t there, and print them out and hang them around his isolette.

    My son was a preemie because I developed severe pre-e and needed a crash c-section to save us both. Part of my treatment was a 24 hour course of IV magnesium sulfate, which required me to be confined to the bed for the duration of the treatment. This meant that I couldn’t get out of bed to see my son for 24 hours after his birth. The NICU nurses took pictures of him while they weighed him and cleaned him up, and brought them to my room for me.

    1. That must have been such a tough 24 hours–how wonderful that the NICU nurses were so kind. Our nurses were always so patient with parents, and nurturing to our babies too.

  3. Thanks so much for this Deek. I had a close friend from out-of-state whose newborn was in the NICU just a couple weeks ago (don’t worry, she and her baby are doing fine now!). I wanted to help but had no idea how and knew that she was too tired and scared and stressed to even tell me what she needed. I wish I had had this list only 2 months or so ago so I would have had ideas for things I could send that would provide some help for her and her family. Now I know what to do if any of my friends end up in similar situations. Thank you!

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