If your daughter-in-law, brother, cousin, or other relative has a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit, it can be difficult to know what to say or do, or how to help. There are a number of steps you can take, however, to make sure that you are being a supportive family member rather than an intrusive one.
Take care of the parents, not the baby
The first thing you should focus on is taking care of the parents of the baby in NICU, rather than trying to step in and help with the care of the baby. The NICU nurses and doctors, as well as the baby’s parents, have already got everything covered. However, the parents will be busy with work, home life (including other children or dependent family members), trying to take time to de-stress and relax, as well as going back and forth to the hospital for daily feedings, check-ups, or time with the baby.
You can help by providing meals, stocking up the fridge and freezer, and cleaning up the parents’ house whenever possible, running errands for them, and taking care of other children if you have the capacity to do so. Taking care of these things can help to relieve stress from the parents, which can help them, in turn, to focus their energy on who needs it most: their baby. A specialist in hospital negligence shares that it’s important from a standard-of-care perspective for the healthcare team to encourage the parents to be “providing care, joint decision-making and to be in regular contact” with the baby, so regardless of whether you are helping the parents, they will still need to be spending significant periods of time at the hospital. You can help to alleviate the other pressures on their lives.
Offer to relay information
It can become tiring for parents needing to tell multiple family members about every improvement or downturn in their baby’s condition, and you can help by offering to relay information to other people so they don’t have to do it. Be sure to only do this with the permission of the parents, as relaying information without being asked can be even worse than not doing anything at all.
Be emotionally sensitive
Try not to trivialise the situation that the parents and baby are in. Even if the baby is doing well and seems to be improving, it’s still stressful and unexpected for everybody. It’s important not to raise examples of babies who were doing worse or had to stay longer because the parents’ experience should be their own and they need to be able to feel heard and respected for the feelings they are having (and not be compared to others).
Don’t stop after the first few weeks
It’s common that the initial frenzy of help and visits dies down after the first few weeks in which the baby is in NICU. However, the parents will still be keeping up with visits every day, disrupted work and sleep schedules, and the emotional stress for as long as the baby is in the hospital, and even after the baby has come home. Remember that even once the baby is home, the parents will need to adjust their lives again in a similar way to a family that has had a full-term or healthy infant. They will still need support and help, so don’t just stop once the first couple of weeks have passed.
By respecting the autonomy of your family members, and the needs of the baby to have its parents close by and available, you can provide the most helpful and best support possible. Help the parents, not the baby, relay information, be sensitive to the situation, and don’t stop as soon as the baby is improving or goes home. Your family member will appreciate your support.