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How To Support A Child With A Sibling In The NICU, Because It's Hard On The Whole Family

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Having to adjust to sharing mom and dad's attention with a new baby is hard for any kid, but it's especially tough if that new baby is admitted into the NICU. It's a stressful situation for everyone, but it's important to look for ways to support a child whose sibling is in the NICU to let them know they're important too. With all the attention on the new baby, the big brother or sister might be feeling pretty left out.

September 29 is Sibling Support Day, which is part of NICU Awareness Month. It's an especially important day, because it recognizes the strength of the older kid(s) who might not entirely understand everything that's going on with their new baby sibling, but can still feel the weight of it in their own way.

When my second baby was admitted to the NICU, my older daughter was shuffled around between school, her own home, and relatives' homes while her dad and I went to visit her sister at the hospital every day. If she was lucky enough to get to visit the baby, she was asked to try to sit still in the dark room so she don't trip over any wires or press buttons on machines. By evening, when she finally got some alone time with her parents, we were exhausted and unable to give her the attention she craved. Whether she was at the hospital or at home, she was constantly being asked to make accommodations for her new sister.

It's a tough situation for a family to manage, and big siblings are just as affected by it as anyone else. It's important to offer them compassion and grace during this time. Here are some things parents and caregivers can do to help support kids with siblings in the NICU.

1. Walk Them Through Their First NICU Visit

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The NICU can be scary for adults, so imagine what it must be like for a little kid. To help them process their first visit, the organization Hand to Hold suggests preparing them beforehand by showing pictures, explaining the sounds and sights they may experience, and even giving them a toy to show them the size of the baby.

At the hospital, talk them through everything again so they can make connections like, oh, this is the sink to wash hands in. Expect them to have a lot of questions, and let the focus of the visit be mostly about getting them comfortable with the nursery. March of Dimes recommends keeping the visit short, around 30 minutes, and explaining what each machine does and how it helps their sibling.

2. Try To Stick To A Routine As Much As Possible

Routines are key for kids, and a baby in the NICU can easily demolish your older kid's routine. But, as much as you can, it's helpful to try to stick to a routine because it will give your big kid a sense of control and predictability in their days.

After I was discharged from the hospital, on weekdays my husband and I got up every day like we were going to work and got our oldest ready for preschool like we always did before the baby arrived. We'd drop her off together and then spend the day at the hospital before heading back to get her at her usual time. We'd try to keep her dinner and bedtime routine consistent, and would wait until after she was in bed before calling the NICU for updates on the baby. It wasn't perfect, but it helped give her some structure during a really emotional time.

3. Have Them Bond With The Baby Through Pictures

Parents who are spending all day with their baby in the NICU get the opportunity to start to bond with them. Unfortunately, since siblings visits are short and likely less frequent, there isn't much time for bonding.

Miracle Babies Foundation suggests helping your older child bond with their sibling through pictures. You can take pictures of the baby every day to give updates or have your older child get their sibling a gift (like a pair of PJs) and take a picture of the baby with the gift. Siblings can also draw pictures for you to hang around the baby's bed and you can give them printed copies of pictures you take of the two of them during a sibling NICU visit.

4. Get Some One-On-One Time

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One thing that is both extremely difficult and incredibly important for parents to do is to step away from the NICU to have some uninterrupted one on one time with the older child.

You can do this by simply cutting your usual NICU visit time short by an hour or two and taking your big kid to dinner or to the park. If the idea of leaving your baby alone for those extra two hours is too awful for you, ask your partner or another close family member to go sit with the baby while you spend time with your oldest. Do your best to put all of your focus on your big kid during that time, because it will make a world of difference to them.

5. Share Your Feelings

The day my baby was supposed to be discharged from the NICU, I showed up with her car seat carrier in hand and diaper bag over my shoulder, only to be told she would not be coming home that day after all. When I went home that night, I laid in bed and cried. When my oldest climbed into bed and asked me what was wrong, I told her the truth: That I was really sad and that I wanted our whole family to be together at home. Even though she was just under three years old, she looked at me with big sad eyes and said, "me, too."

Sharing your own feelings with your child lets them see that it's okay to be sad and it's okay to talk about it. It will also give them an opportunity to tell you how they're feeling. You might not be able to fix what they're going through, but you can remind them that you're there to listen to them, hug them, and tell them how much they are loved. It might even make you feel a little better, too.

6. Be Patient With Behavior Issues

Younger kids don't always know how to express their big feelings, so they show them through behaviors instead. Common ways the Miracle Babies Foundation says NICU sibling behavior might include acting out, regressing with potty training, being clingy, becoming withdrawn, having difficulty with eating or sleeping, or struggling at school.

Dealing with these kinds of behaviors isn't ever particularly easy, but it can be even more difficult with the added stress of a baby in the NICU (and postpartum hormones). Still, as much as you can, try to be patient with your child when they're acting out. Showing them a little extra grace during this time will also show them that they're still just as important to you as they always have been.

Big kids who spent months anxiously awaiting the arrival of their new sibling might feel a little left out or even angry when all of their parents' time and attention is suddenly spent on the NICU baby. It's a tough adjustment, and they deserve a little extra love and support during this time, too.