When I had my first child she aspirated meconium, had a hole in her lung, and had her stomach pumped. As a result, she had to be in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for the first five days of her life. It was torture. I don't know that any parent is ever fully prepared to spend the first moments of their child's life enclosed in a tiny NICU room. And while I didn't know what I needed at the time, in retrospect I can share the best things you could do for a mom with a baby in the NICU.
I had barely met my daughter before they whisked her away. As a result, I was numb. I guess I honestly didn't know what I was supposed to feel. I definitely didn't know what I did feel. I kept telling stories to anyone who would listen about my perception of childbirth, since this was the first time I'd done it, but I was dissociated. My consciousness was floating somewhere up and off to the side of my head.
The mom and baby unit was two floors (and an entire hospital width) away from the NICU. So as much as I was mentally removed from my new child, I was also quite literally physically removed from her, too. The truth is moms with a baby in the NICU will probably be somewhere between dissociated, devastated, and hysterical (or all at once) at all times and until their baby is allowed to go home. They may not know what they need, so it's our job to figure it out and give it to them.
Bring Her Tea
Acute Stress Disorder, the precursor to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is common for parents of NICU babies. One of the symptom clusters includes dissociation or a disconnection from the body. So, a mom with a baby in the NICU will likely need to ground. Instead of pressuring a mom to ground herself, offer other things that might help her come back to her body on her own. Like tea. Believe it or not, tea is a fantastic grounding tool.
For the future, note that even after the hospital stay is over moms may have persistent trauma symptoms that turn into PTSD. If you notice warning signs, help mom get help immediately.
Hold Her When She Cries
The new mom will probably cry at some point. Even if her fear, grief, and tears don't look like you thought they would, be quiet and hold her when she cries.
Make Her Laugh When She Needs It
If you're anything like me, laughter can get you through the worst moments of your life. I've seen and been through some seriously heinous situations. That, my friends, is how I developed a very crass sense of humor. Your timing must be exact or you'll risk being insensitive and offensive, but there is nothing more helpful than an accurately placed bit of dark humor.
Let Her Cuss
I remember fighting with my nurse who wanted me to stay in my room when I wanted to be with my baby. (Side note: my baby didn't even feel like my baby yet. She was just an idea of something that had once been inside of my body.) I remember, foggily, the photographer waking me up from the first sleep I'd had in 48 hours to cheerily inquire about my desire to take "first baby" pictures. Have you ever seen steam come out of someone's ears?
These women probably didn't deserve my wrath, but it had to go somewhere so they got it. If you get it from the NICU mom you're supporting, don't take it personally.
Watch Her Baby
Insist she goes to take a poop or shower or walk. Something, even if it's just for five minutes, and don't move from that baby's room while she's gone.
Almost 8 years later I still remember the person who did this for me, and I'm eternally grateful.
Bring Gifts From Other Kids
I didn't have other kids when I was a NICU mom. However, now that I have three kids, I would totally want reminders of my already amazing, totally healthy children if I had another baby in the NICU. This can help mom connect to the still good things out in the real world without you telling her there are good things. She won't believe it if you tell her, so bring her some gifts from her kids if you can.
Don't Tell Her Everything Is Going To Be OK
Because you absolutely do not know if things are going to be OK, so it's not OK to say so.
Bring Her Food...
She likely won't want to eat, mind you, but she'll still need to and will likely forget. If you bring her some food (if the hospital staff allows it) t least she'll have the option.
...But Don't Take t Personally If She Doesn't Eat It
When you bring her food, don't take offense if she doesn't eat it. According to the trauma response system, when in survival mode the brain tells your digestive system to essentially stop. Sometimes just knowing you have the option to eat if you want to, or need to, is helpful.
Make Her Bed
If she's allowed to sleep in the room, make her bed. Hospitals are so depressing, and sleeping in one when your baby is sick is even worse. She won't think about it, and she won't do it herself, but if you can make the bed (or even the small pull-out sofa bed she's sleeping on) she will feel so much better if you do.
Bring Her Clean Underwear
And maybe some baby wipes.
Ask Her What She Needs...
This question doesn't have to turn annoying, but do ask it at every chance you get.
"I'm running to the cafeteria, need anything?"
"I was just going to go outside. Can I get you something?"
"Hey, I'm back. What can I do for you?"
...And Be Prepared For Her Not To Know
As previously mentioned, a mom with a baby in the NICU will likely not know what she needs, or her needs will change drastically from moment to moment. Be gentle with her. Her mind is in some iteration of trauma response, and she is still figuring out how to exist with this new set of unexpected circumstances.
Be available, be present,and be kind. My mother, partner, and best friend did that for me when my child was in the NICU, and I am confident that is the only reason I survived.