When a friend or family member has a baby in the NICU, it can be difficult to interpret their behavior. Oftentimes, the NICU stint is the culmination of a high-risk pregnancy. The post-traumatic symptoms a parent may be experiencing are not necessarily well understood. This is especially true if it appears that the baby will likely do just fine – that the NICU is a necessary precaution with a clear road map to an excellent outcome.
When you are trying to support a friend or loved one with a baby in the NICU, it is helpful to understand the overall vibe of their experience. A NICU is very often an incredibly intense place. The nurses rule. Rules are there for a reason and they are rigid. Even if it seems as though a baby will be just fine, they are very likely to be surrounded by parents with babies who are unlikely to thrive. Expressions of optimism can feel very jinx-like. It is very difficult to live at this particular precipice between life and death. There is, perhaps, no greater or more profound illustration of there but for the grace.
If, for example, a NICU experience was the result of pre-term labor and bed rest, a parent will likely be struggling with the sum total of the pregnancy and postpartum experience. There may be (misdirected but still present) feelings of guilt. Parents are bleary, stressed, exhausted and not really ready to engage life on a day-to-day basis. Even if they, themselves, return home at night, it is unlikely that they will be available to meet you for lunch. There is no normal rhythm of anything when your baby is in the NICU.
If a NICU situation is an emergency, such as in sudden preterm labor and birth, helping a family to continue to function on a daily basis is critically important. Make a centralized care calendar and invite those near and dear to contribute. Note, though, that the most effective helpers are those who take the time to assess a household. To see where they can help prior to dismantling systems already in place. Do not, for example, dismiss the nanny for a few weeks because you want to help save money or because you think you can figure out the routine of older children. The family will likely still need the nanny when you are gone and her/his “time off" could have necessitated their finding another situation. Instead, consider coming at night to help with homework, teeth-brushing, and reading at bedtime. Take the time to talk to the parents about what is most necessary prior to taking a heroic, incredibly well-intended (and still too big) swing.
At the end of a high-risk pregnancy, I myself experienced, my son was brought to the NICU with a very treatable breathing problem. He only needed monitoring but I recall being wrecked. It was months and months of grief and fear that just heaved off of me in sheets. I felt as though I was submerged in a fish tank, the heaviness of love so present with these little physical lives still possibly transient. It was so beautiful. It was so terrifying.
When you speak to a friend with a NICU baby understand that even if the baby is likely to be just fine, s/he is quite possibly not fine at all. Instead of lunch, offer to bring coffee and meet in the car in the hospital parking lot for twenty minutes (sanitize the car seats.) Let a parent know how present you are in their minds, and above all, keep asking what specific thing(s) you can do to be most helpful.
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