Having a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit is an incredibly difficult time. Here are 15 practical tips to support someone with a premature baby
My daughter had twin boys, George and Arthur, two months ago at 30 weeks (she still hasn’t even reached her due date!). All are thankfully well and thriving now. And they are all home together.
The care they received in Holles Street as public patients was off the charts. There was not a single thing we could fault in any way, little or large. The whole family was treated with utmost sensitivity and expertise.
Still, the first few days and weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), as you familiarise yourselves with a world you never knew existed and learn its whole new emotional and verbal vocabulary, are terrifying.
You run on adrenalin. Even if you want desperately to help in some tangible way, your options are painfully limited both as a parent and as a relative.
Thankfully, gradually, you learn to navigate the situation.
I can only imagine what it must be like for a new mother, already on a hormonal rollercoaster – even though I saw my own daughter go through it first-hand. My heart often broke for her and her husband, but still I can’t begin to fathom what it’s really like to go home empty-handed or to have your milk come in but not be able to hold your baby let alone feed them.
Or to not be able to have your siblings meet your babies.
Or to try and juggle commuting back and forth for feeds with looking after yourself – not pampering, just the basics: eating relatively healthily, tending to stitches, drinking enough water, stealing some sleep.
Happily, if we on the periphery listen and concentrate on logistics, there are some things we can do to make things a little easier for the new family while they are in the NICU. There are even things you can do to help with breastfeeding, which is a top priority for preemies – it is literally liquid gold.
In the hope that this by no means definitive list might help, here’s what worked for us.
1. Morning routine
Whenever possible, help parents get to the hospital first thing in the morning for doctors’ rounds as information is more readily accessible then. There will be ups and downs in every NICU journey and there will be great comfort in being able to discuss things with staff.
2. Parents first
Bear in mind that it can be an extra strain on new parents to accommodate grandparents for visiting hours, which are limited to two evening hours at the end of a long day – always be prepared to ditch your visit if parents seem to need to get home for some rest themselves. Only one grandparent per baby is allowed in at a time and no other visitors are permitted.
3. Cot sheets
Gather up muslins and cot sheets – borrow or buy – as the hospital will expect the family to provide them. Wash them and afterwards, give them to parents so they can sleep with them before bringing them into hospital for the babies to smell in their incubators.
Bed linen also affords an opportunity to personalise the babies’ space which is a real boost.
4. Admin duties
Take over some of the birth admin – registering the birth, applying for PPS numbers, passports, etc.
5. Breast pump
If you can afford to rent a hospital grade milk pump, organise this as soon as you can and set it up for the new mother. The hospital will know the nearest supplier.
6. Cooler bag
Pretty immediately, parents will need a simple, compact over the shoulder cooler bag and ice inserts for transporting milk. Amazon and Lidl have excellent ones for about a tenner.
7. Pumping bra
Order proper pumping bras to hold breast pump suction cups tightly in place. They put less strain on nipples, speed things up and will allow a new mother some invaluable handsfree time. Alternatively, cut a small hole out of the centre of each cup in an old, tight fitting sports bra – the pump suction cup goes inside the bra and the tube comes out the new hole.
8. Zipper bags
Buy plastic zipper bags in bulk – a near infinite supply for transporting sterilised equipment and clean laundry is a must.
9. Free now
Provide open-ended lifts wherever possible – dropping off is preferable to waiting around, which puts time pressure on parents.
10. Parking fees
The cost of parking can be a huge strain. Call the county council and explain the situation – you may be able to negotiate a break from parking fees.
11. Batch cook
Batch cook to beat the band and when people ask you what they can do, ask for food. You can guarantee that new parents will be too tired to make meals when they get home from hospital every day.
12. Tiny clothes
When the babies are finally ready for clothing, it can be surprisingly hard to find very tiny things. M&S, Primark and Dunnes do some sweet miniature onesies and Danish brand Konges Sloejd has the most delicious tiny wraparounds, but there is often very limited selection in shops so buying ahead online can make sense.
If possible look for ones with Velcro closures – they make access to tubes easier for medical staff. Hats aren’t as vital as you might have thought; they can be difficult to manage with equipment and temperatures are strictly controlled in the units anyway.
13. Home time
Anticipate what will be needed on discharge and have it ready – car seat inserts for small babies, hand sanitiser, sterilisers etc. Holles St is a big fan of Tesco bottles and Bella Baby Happy Nappies Size 0 (available on Amazon sporadically). Stock up.
14. Vaccinate yourself
Organise vaccinations for anyone who will be spending a lot of time with the babies. Whooping cough, flu and shingles vaccines are recommended.
15. Manage expectations
Once they are back home, help parents limit home visitors until the babies are full term. They may be home for a few weeks before it’s safe to expose them to loads of new people. It can be hard to keep people away, but if you can help manage expectations there will be less pressure on the new family to do so.
We also found it tough logistically when one twin was still in hospital and the other was out, as is so often the case with multiple births. Try to be flexible about minding the one at home because parents are not allowed to bring them back on the ward during visits.
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