When you have a baby, all you want to do is protect them and care for them and be there for them, and a NICU stay really makes that difficult. And while you know it’s for the best, you can’t help but feel awful and stressed and sad about all of it. NICU (or neonatal intensive care unit) stays can be extremely difficult for both baby and parent. Rather than taking your baby home within a day or two of their birth (or having your baby at home), you end up having to leave them behind in the hospital, in the care of strangers (capable strangers, but strangers nonetheless, at least at first).
There are so many ways to be there for a parent whose baby is in the NICU, whether it’s by being physically present with them, sending cards or calling if you’re far away, or simply being readily available for whenever they need you. I’ve listed several of the most helpful things you can say to a NICU parent, many of which were said to me when my own son was in the NICU for two months after his birth. It was an emotionally and physically draining time, and I wouldn’t have gotten through it without the support of close friends and relatives who proved how much they loved our little family. Your loved ones are sure to appreciate these words as well.
"How Are You Doing Today?"
Every day spent in the NICU is different, so you’ll want to frequently check in with them regularly.
"How Is Your Baby Doing Today?"
A NICU stay is, of course, an even more varied experience for the sick or premature baby. Ask the parent how their baby is doing. Is their fever down? Have they figured out a diagnosis? Have their specialists been by today? Asking about the baby’s condition, and showing you actually care to know and understand it, will make any parent feel extremely supported.
"You Are Doing The Best You Can"
Parents in the NICU often struggle with feeling like they’ve somehow let their baby down, or feeling helpless when they want to do so much for their child. Reassure the parent that they are doing the best they can given the circumstances. They know they are, but it helps when others say it.
"None Of This Is Your Fault"
Feelings of guilt also often creep in when your baby is in the NICU. It’s nice to be reminded that you aren’t the reason your child is there.
"Do You Want To Talk About It?"
Simple enough. Sometimes you really do want to talk about it, but you don’t know how to start the conversation. Make it easier on these emotionally-taxed parents and let them know you’re open to listening. And even if they’re not feeling it, keep offering in the future. Every day is different.
"How Is Your Partner/Co-Parent Dealing With Everything?"
If the parent has a partner or an involved co-parent of any kind, ask how that person is dealing with the situation as well. Often one parent will be much more involved than the other. Sometimes feelings of resentment will loom in. Allow the parent to discuss these matters with you if they so desire.
"Your Baby Is So Lucky To Have You"
Every parent should hear this, but especially NICU parents.
"Can I See Pictures Of The Baby?"
Depending on the baby’s condition, a parent may or may not want to share photos of their child right away. But if you ask, they will at the very least feel loved that you would want to see their little one.
"I’m Keeping You And Your Baby In my Thoughts (Or Prayers Or Whatever You're Into)"
Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, letting a parent know that they and their baby are in your thoughts is still very reassuring. Some folks will say they’ll be lighting a candle or saying a prayer, and depending on the parents beliefs, these may also be suitable things to say. If you know the parent is agnostic or atheist, you might not want to go further than this (but a religious parent might also appreciate specific prayers; you’ll know what’s best for the given situation).
"I’m Here For Whatever You Need"
Let the parent know you’re around in whatever capacity they may need, whether to be physically present or just to swing through or simply to be a voice on the phone. Ask the parent if they need something dropped off, whether it’s a new toothbrush or a change of clothes or a few good books. Or drop a care package anyway. It’s always appreciated.
"Would You Like To Go Get Something To Eat?"
Taking the parent out of the hospital for an hour or so can be incredibly nurturing for the NICU parent. One of my best friends asked me to go have dinner and a drink with her across the street from the hospital, and while I was terrified of leaving my baby (even weeks later, and even with his father staying behind to keep him company), I knew it was good for my mental state to simply be in a new environment for a while.
"Don’t Forget To Take Care Of Yourself"
This goes hand in hand with the last part. Remind the NICU parent that they need not forget themselves in these difficult times. Sure, it’s not the time to go for a weekend spa getaway, but simple things like leaving the hospital to take a shower and a breather are essential for good mental health.
"It’s OK To Feel Upset/Scared/Angry"
NICU parents will reach their breaking point time and time again. They’ll go from hopeful to feeling hopeless, to getting angry and impatient, to being terrified they might never bring their baby home. Gently remind these parents that it’s perfectly fine and normal to have these feelings and even indulge these feelings a bit, but to try and not get stuck in them, because it really is easy to get lost in the darkness.
"It’s OK If You Don’t Feel Like Talking"
If there’s one thing I learned about being a NICU parent, it’s that talking isn’t always necessary. Sometimes having a friend present, even if silent, can mean so, so much.
"I Can’t Wait To Meet The Baby When You’re Both Ready"
If you’re unable to visit the baby in the NICU at first, let your loved one know that you’re excited to eventually meet their little fighter. They’ll appreciate it.