Being a friend means showing up when things are light and easy, and showing up when things are hard. Especially when things are hard. When a friend has a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), it’s tough to know just what to do and how to be there. Having been on both sides of this scenario, I’m here to share ways that you can help someone with a baby in the NICU.
A stay in the NICU isn’t something most of us will deal with personally: Often the reason for admittance into the NICU is preterm delivery, and, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2020, about one in 10 babies would be born preterm, or before 37 weeks. So the idea of having a baby who requires round-the-clock intensive care for a period can feel like a horrible and unfamiliar thought. Many people might be in the dark as to how they can help friends who are dealing with that kind of stress.
Honestly, most of what you can do for someone with a baby in the NICU isn’t a huge ask: It’s about offering support. Taking on small tasks, like buying dinners or walking dogs, can go a long way. Stepping up can also mean taking on a bit of emotional weight, like letting parents vent, rage, or whatever they need to do to feel a little lighter.
Here I’m sharing a few ways that I know from personal experience can help any friend in this situation. Every gesture helps carry the burden, and let your friend know they’re not alone.
Feed Your Friends
There’s something really simple yet wonderful about a hot meal. Be it a homemade dinner, or a gift card to Postmates, providing meals can make things a little easier. You can even fill your friend’s refrigerator with groceries from Instacart. Because thinking about how you’re going to feed yourself, or your other kids, when your baby is in distress can feel pretty impossible. Food can feed the mind, body, and spirit. And if they have to leave their baby in the NICU and go home, at least they can have a fridge full of food they didn’t have to think about it.
Take On a Little Chore
Little things we don’t think about as being particularly burdensome can be a real cause of anxiety if your baby is in the NICU. Think about grabbing the mail, walking the dog, or mowing the lawn. All of these chores still need to be done, even when one has a baby in the NICU, and my goodness, do they take up mental space.
When my close friend’s daughter was born severely premature, her friends and close family all took turns walking her dogs, doing the cat litter, refreshing the fridge, and taking care of her houseplants. We created and shared a Google calendar, and made a schedule so she never needed to worry about the daily chores.
If it feels more comfortable, you can consider giving a gift card to a local house cleaning service. That way, the house chores will get done when your friend decides it’s most convenient.
Offer A Ride To The Hospital
Another little thing that’s actually a really big thing? Parking at hospitals. It’s freaking expensive. While my son was in the NICU, I racked up a couple hundred dollars in parking tickets and at least $150 in parking fees. If you can help drop off and pick up family members, or send them Lyft or Uber gift cards, it would be a huge help.
The same goes for dropping off or picking up other kids from school or day care. Transportation in general is a huge pain in the neck. And I know that I was also not the best driver when I was stressed about my son in the NICU.
Be The Best Babysitter
Imagine the stress of having a newborn in the NICU if you’re also a parent to other kids. You can really help out a friend in that situation by watching their other kids. If you’re close enough, you can even offer to take them overnight. When one child is in the hospital, the siblings may feel a bit shut out or neglected, so taking them for playdates and fun outings would not only help the parents, but also make the kids feel good.
Even if it’s just for a few hours, taking their other littles out and making them feel special can lighten the mood of the entire family. It gives both parents time with the baby while they know that their other kids are cared for, loved, and happy. That’s everything.
Give Your Emotional Support
This is arguably the hardest of all things to do, as it’s dictated by your relationship to the person needing support. Some people need levity and humor to get through, and others need someone to cry on and wail at, because there’s no more helpless feeling than watching your child struggle in such an acute, scary way. Being a great friend means trying to figure out what support your friend needs in the moment. Just make it clear that you are there for them.
Also important in this kind of situation is reassuring your friend. Studies have researched the importance of letting a parent know that they are, indeed, a good parent. Hearing that sentence, and helping them believe it, can be an enormous support in the short and long term.
Remember, for some parents the best way you can help is by stepping back. Not everyone may want your help. Not everyone wants to text or talk. And you know what? That’s OK, too. This is their journey. You’ve reached out, you let them know that you’re there for them, and if they don’t prioritize getting back to you, that’s fine. They’re stressed to the max, and it happens. It’s not the end of your friendship.
Get Them Out Of The Hospital
Some parents won't leave the hospital for much more than a shower or a trip to the pharmacy. That’s how I was. If you can, get your friend out for an hour or two, or even a few minutes. Go on a walk with them, take them for coffee, or a glass of wine. Offer them that time to decompress outside of the hospital. Having a baby in the NICU consumes your whole self, and all the mental space you have. It’s draining. Getting out is a big step in freeing up some space.
Send A Card
So you’re not super-tight with your friend who has a baby in the NICU? Maybe they’re a coworker or an acquaintance. Send a note, and maybe a gift card: “Thinking of you, sending all my best energy,” with a $25 Starbucks card. When I say that it’s enough, it is.
And remember, depending on how long your friend’s baby is in the NICU, these priorities might shift and evolve. One day you may need to bring boxes of tissues, and another day boxes of donuts. Some days you might not hear from your friend at all. For parents with a sick child, days feel like weeks, and weeks can feel like years. But knowing they have your support can mean the whole world.
Haward, M.F., Lantos, J., Janvier, A. Helping Parents Cope in the NICU. Pediatrics. 2020 Jun;145(6):e20193567. PMID: 32471844. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32471844/