My twins, Micah and Zachary, were born three months prematurely. They spent 91 terrifying days in the NICU, where they each nearly lost their lives. I am not exaggerating when I say that most of our 91 days in the NICU felt like hell. During this time, I did not reach out to my family and friends because I was too overwhelmed. I needed people to reach out to me and insist on providing their support. Fortunately, people did, and here are the amazing gifts they gave...
Do you know a NICU family? Which gift can you share?
Babies need to feel their parents' touch and skin; it is crucial to their development. During our NICU journey, an "expert babywearer" visited our family and showed us how to safely wrap our babies -- even when they were hooked up to cords, wires and tubes. Babywearing allowed us to keep our babies close, snuggled up next to our hearts, with our hands totally free! Babywearing provides a beautiful (and convenient!) way for parents and babies to bond. All NICU families should learn how to "wear" their babies.
2. Capture the moments.
In the moment, we had no desire to remember or document most of our NICU experience. It was so overwhelming that we just wanted it to be over. But now, we treasure every photo, video, handprint and keepsake from the boys' first months of life. We loved having non-toxic, washable ink pads to make baby hand- and footprints. High quality photos and videos are invaluable in reminding us to celebrate all of our babies' achievements.
3. Children's books.
Micah and Zachary couldn't be held during most of their NICU stay. To connect, we read children's books to them. We sat next to their isolettes and read story after story. The boys loved hearing our voices and feeling us close. The stories we read during their NICU stay are written in our hearts forever. Every NICU baby should own these books:
4. Healthy food.
Hospital food gets old fast. We were always at the hospital and never made time to cook. We needed food that was easy to eat, satisfying and, most of all, healthy. Nursing (or exclusively pumping!) mothers need a healthy, nutrient-rich diet. Healthy meals from our family and friends were a godsend.
5. Help at home.
It was impossible to keep up with household tasks during the boys' NICU stay. Even simple chores were neglected. We desperately needed help to keep our home functioning. Thankfully, our moms and neighbors stepped up. If you're willing to lend a hand, please be specific with your offer. Here's what we found extremely helpful:
- Help with siblings/the family dog
- Help with the yard
- Offers to run errands or pick up things from the store
- Did we mention healthy food?
6. Mama milk.
Breast milk is essential for premature infants. Unfortunately, most preemies cannot nurse for weeks or months, which means mothers of preemies have to rely on a breast pump to establish their milk supply. Pumping is exhausting, uncomfortable and challenging. Mothers of preemies need your support, encouragement and understanding. Premature infants need mama milk. Partners, family members and friends should do everything they can to support NICU mamas as they make milk for their babies. Donor milk is a great option for premature infants whose mothers cannot provide them with enough milk.
Music heals. Micah and Zachary were fortunate to have a music therapist play live music for them regularly. The music soothed all of us. When live music wasn't available, we relied on Pandora One for uplifting music. Calm music drowns out sounds of chaos (i.e. alarms, machines, beeping) and creates a haven of peace and healing.
8. Personalized baby gifts.
We treasure these baby gifts that Micah and Zachary received while in the NICU:
- Handmade baby blankets
- Children's books
- Preemie-sized, button-up clothes
- Personalized keepsake boxes
- Wraps or babycarriers that allowed us to keep our babies close
9. Planned visits.
Micah and Zachary were often so unpredictable and unstable that I did not want spontaneous visitors. I could not handle one more person or any more questions. Planned visits were wonderful. Indeed, I wanted visitors. I wanted to share my beautiful sons with my family and friends. I wanted to be connected with life outside of the NICU. But, I had to feel safe and ready.
10. Presence. Words. Silence.
Be present in the moment with NICU families. Love the NICU baby for who she is right now. Stop looking for explanations or trying to make predictions. Just be in the moment. Here are some things to say to NICU families:
- Your baby is beautiful.
- I would love to support you through this journey. Can I provide/give/do___________?
- Where can I wash my hands? (Hand hygiene is an important way to protect preemies' health.)
- Use words that validate, empower and recognize the challenges of being a NICU family.
Tragically, baby loss is a real thing for many NICU families. Be sure to say the lost baby's name and let the family know you haven't forgotten about their precious baby. Finally, get comfortable with silence. Sometimes just being present, and listening, is all NICU families need to feel loved, validated and supported.
No one plans to become a NICU family. NICU families need the love and support of their family and community. If you know a NICU family, provide them with one of these 10 incredible gifts. Insist on showing them some love. A community of love will help NICU families become the best advocates, nurturers and champions for their precious babies.