It happened so suddenly. I wasn’t even in my third trimester. The next thing I knew I was a mother to twin boys and the NICU was our home for the next 3 months. I was thrown into a whole new world that I knew nothing about. When a child lands in the hospital the family requires much support from family and friends. But what can family and friends do to care for this family?
You cannot rely on the parents to tell you what they need because they may not know themselves or they may not be able to put it into words. So be pro-active in lending support. Here are a few ways you can do this. (These can apply to any family who has child admitted to the hospital)
Call- Being in the hospital for an extended time can make you feel so disconnected from all your family and friends. It is nice to be reminded that people care about you; but be mindful of your conversation. (see below)
Visit- Don’t expect to visit the ill child. Your visit it for encouragement to the parents who will be glad to know you took time out of your day to bring them some good company. Ask them to accompany you to lunch or a snack, even if it is on hospital grounds so they are not far from their loved one. It is nice to have an excuse to leave the NICU every once in a while for a short break.
Conversation- Sometimes there won’t be conversation. NICU parents are extremely tired and can seem distant, but don’t take it that they don’t want you there. It is hard, no, next to impossible to switch gears from thinking solely about your babies condition and talking about medical stats with the nurses to having a conversation with friends or family. But they may not want to discuss details about their baby; respect their privacy. Instead try to bring some good cheer; but whatever you do, don’t talk about other people’s healthy babies! If you say something hurtful, or is taken as hurtful, sincerely apologize. Don’t argue about what you meant, you won’t win that argument and you may lose a friend.
Don’t give up- If you call or visit at a bad time, don’t use that as an excuse to avoid calling in the future, unless you are asked to not call. The NICU is such a roller coaster of a ride and no one ever knows when a good time or bad time will be. The next time you call or drop in, you might be just what they were needing at the moment.
Food – Living on hospital and fast food can get old. It is nice to come home to a home cooked meal from a friend. Or if the parents are unable to come home every night, provide them a gift card to a nearby restaurant or drop off healthy snacks like fruit, nuts and bottled water for them to snack on throughout the day.
Get them outdoors- A little bit of sunshine can do a lot to lift spirits. Take a walk or eat lunch at a nearby park or even the hospital courtyard.
Transportation- If the hospital is near or far there will be times when parents could use a ride. Especially if the mother had a caesarean, she can’t drive for the first few weeks after surgery but will want to be near her baby. Or it may just give her an extra opportunity to take a nap, especially after an exhausting day spent in the NICU. Gas cards are also a great way to help with driving expenses.
Housework- Offer to do laundry or dishes for the family (or anything else you see fit to help with while at the house, does the lawn need mowed? are groceries needed?). After a long day at the hospital there is no energy left for housework, but a dirty house can lead to added stress. Coming home to a clean house helps parents get the much needed break and rest they need.
Other Children- There is MCUH help needed if there other children are in the household. Those children will need to be watched often so that the parents can visit the hospital. Consider watching them overnight so that their parents can get some extra rest too. Make sure to keep things upbeat for the child(ren) involved and NEVER ask a child about their ill sibling or share any details you know with the child! Instead plan some fun activities to keep them occupied. If you can even simply pick them up from school or take them to their activities to keep their routine as normal as possible this will help parents a great deal. If you are unable to physically care for the children, send a small gift to let them know you are. Distractions are needed to keep them from becoming overly stressed.
Pets- Can you go to their home and feed and play with pets? Pets suffer too when the family gets turned upside down due to a hospital stay for a family member. They will get lonely and maybe even forgot to be fed due to the added stress and lack of sleep of the family. Even consider offering to bring the pets to your place if you are in a position, especially if the family has to stay out of town. Make sure to pick up some pet food if you notice they are running low.
Set up a system – Sometimes a hospital stay is only a few days, other times it can be a few weeks or months. Can you help set up a support system with mutual friends for the extended care of a family? Maybe a family can adopt certain responsibilities on a certain day each week.
If you know someone who has a child in the hospital, please reach out to them. The love you show will go long way.
If you are new to the NICU read these tips: When Your Due Date Comes Earlier Than Expected :: How to Manage the NICU
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