How to Help a Brand New Preemie Mom - a Crash Course for Friends & Family
Just the other day I watched as a mom was wheeled to her brand new preemie baby's bedside - a tired & frightened mother in a wheelchair, her baby a wee 2 pound peanut you could hardly see under the tangle of cords, tubes & wires enveloping him. It was a hushed moment, somber and sad.
As I watched her being pushed up to her baby's incubator, I caught myself thinking "This is exactly a situation where a website is utterly useless for NICU moms. This mother hasn't had time to look online! A website can't help her, and she's the person who needs support the most. Maybe I'm crazy thinking Hello Preemie can help."
And that feeling stuck with me for days.
That mother, whom I couldn't help with a website, stayed with me. That baby, whom I couldn't help with a website, stayed with me.
But about a week later, a new idea slowly dawned on me... I thought back to that moment and realized there was someone else in that scene, someone else with that new mother, tenderly pushing the wheelchair. It was her mother. The baby's grandmother. A mother herself, who was probably desperate to bring comfort to her grown daughter.
And I realized one way I might be able to help the mothers who don't have time to get online. I might be able to help by teaching all of the family, friends, and loved ones who surround the new preemie mother what they can do. Because they have the time to look online and they have the energy to try to figure out how to help when a crisis like this hits.
So this is for all of you - the friends and family out there who are supporting a new preemie mom in those very first days.
You are her lifeline
A new NICU mom is probably feeling one or more of these things:
- so overwhelmed, she may feel like she's drowning
- confused, with no idea how to handle any of it
- scared, no matter how good or bad the prognosis is for her baby
- utterly lonely, because nobody can truly understand what she's going through
- guilty, for failing her baby
- jealous of other moms and their healthy babies
- angry, because her pregnancy didn't last and because her baby is suffering
- and so much more....
The nurses and doctors of the NICU will be doing everything they can to explain and comfort, but you're her family. You are the people she really needs right now. And there are definitely ways you can help that are better than others.
I want this to be a quick but thorough course on how YOU can help that new mommy who desperately needs you.
Help Her take care of herself
Anything you can do to help a new mom take care of herself will be of utmost importance. This means:
- Help protect her sleep - if the hospital doesn't already have one, make a sign for her hospital door to keep visitors away when she's sleeping
- Remind her to stay hydrated - keep refilling her water, and consider giving her a great big water bottle to make it easier (see the care package I recommend below)
- Don't overwhelm with too many questions or visitors - those can come later
- She shouldn't have to worry about anything else outside of the hospital - provide child care for her other children, walk her dog, contact her work for her.
Create a care package
Many moms pack bags for the hospital, but they're not for the NICU. They're for a big healthy baby they hoped to dress in cute outfits and swaddle in huge muslin blankets. So they probably don't have the things that will help them in these immediate days in the NICU. So throw together a bundle of goodies. (If you want an even bigger list of ideas, check out How to Create the Ultimate NICU Care Package.)
For a basic care package, include
- Snacks she'll like (get her what SHE wants - a chocolate indulgence for the mom with a sweet tooth, or a healthy snack for the moms who prefer that).
- A journal and a pen (a blank journal works fine, or better yet a NICU-specific journal) - it's good to have right away for writing down all of the new words and statistics that she's having to learn.
- A nice water bottle (the crappy plastic ones given out by the hospitals are depressing! But be sure it holds a lot of water and it has a lid so it won't spill in the NICU. This is my favorite today.)
- Package it in some kind of re-usable tote that she can use to carry everything back and forth to the NICU (something cheerful is even better).
- Don't forget something personal - an encouraging note from you, or even artwork from younger children to hang at the baby's bedside.
If you want to bump it up to a slightly fancier care package, you might include:
Breast milk cooler tote - something to transport pumped milk to the NICU, keeping it cold.
Milestone cards - gives moms something positive to look forward to, such as gaining weight or first time holding her baby.
- Hands-free pumping bra - any pumping mom will LOVE you for this. It's a must for NICU moms.
- Scent cloths - these are actually reusable breast pads, but they're a perfect hack for preemie moms (read more about using scent to bond here)- moms wear these close to their skin, and then leave them with their babies so their baby can always smell them even when they're apart.
- Preemie Octopus - preemies love grasping the tentacles of these sweet animals, and parents love having a cuddly for their baby.
- NICU Crib art - these inspiring sayings help moms stay positive and surround the baby with hope. NICU-approved laminated art to hang on the baby's bed.
(full disclosure - the items from Every Tiny Thing are the products I have developed for NICU moms; I wouldn't be recommending them if I didn't 100% believe in them as a wonderful way to bring a little joy and comfort to the NICU when it's needed most)
What to say, what not to say
- I'm so sorry you're having to go through this.
- I'm here for you.
- How is your baby today? It helps if you just talk about today, because the future can be too uncertain and scary.
- I wish I knew what to say but I don't.... Honesty really does wonders to lighten the mood and show true compassion.
- Is there anything you can think of that I can help you with?
- Can I see a picture of your baby / would you like me to visit you at the NICU? Try not to get freaked out by pictures, because preemies can look quite unusual with tubes & wires - just ask mom to explain what everything is and tell her how cute the baby is. Try to find something cute - a button nose, a dimple, sweet toes - and focus on that. As for visiting, don't expect her to say yes to a visit, because often that's too much. But people rarely ask, and sometimes it's exactly what she needs.
- Would you like me to pray for you? (Only if that is something natural to you and she would be comfortable with the question)
Most important is that you listen. Try to avoid putting your worries and your opinions on her.
He's so tiny. She KNOW this already and hates hearing it over and over.
What happened? She probably doesn't know, she probably wants to know, and this question adds to mom's guilt.
- What did you do? Seriously, people say this. Come on! How is that helpful? Just don't. She didn't do anything wrong. It just happens sometimes.
- She looks like a little alien / little old man / a monkey... don't add to her sadness. Let her feel wonderful about her beautiful preemie baby. Find something cute that any mom would be delighted to hear about her baby.
- You're so strong / I couldn't do this / How are you doing this? No mom wants to be strong, and she may not feel strong at all.
- At least you didn't gain too much weight Any preemie mom would rather gain the weight than see her baby suffer.
- At least you can get some sleep before the baby comes home No, sleep isn't easy for worried moms up all night pumping. And no, she wouldn't rather sleep, she'd rather be with her baby safe & sound.
- This happened for a reason/God only gives you what you can handle Maybe you feel this way, but in the moment it feels like too much to handle and there feels like absolutely no good reason to have her baby suffer. So even if you believe this, avoid saying it.
- Do not ask when the baby is coming home. Parents wish they knew this - OH, how they wish they knew this! They ask the NICU staff all the time, and nobody ever knows when a preemie is going to go home. So don't remind them of the hugest question on their mind.
Don't believe me that these are the best and worst things to say? Then listen to this preemie mom or read this incredible research paper about insensitive comments and how they impact preemie parents.
The best ways to help
Help should be easy for the mom to receive, which means:
- She shouldn't have to ask for it - whatever it is you want to do to help, just do it.
- She shouldn't have to decide what's helpful - think ahead of what you can offer and just offer it ("I want to bring you dinner once a week," or "I am going to the store so I'm going to pick up stuff to stock your fridge.")
- She shouldn't have to schedule your help.
- So you tell her what you want to do to help and when you're going to do it.
Here are a few great examples:
"I know this time in the NICU can be so hard, and I want to help. So I'd like to bring dinner for you once a week while you're in the NICU. I'll drop it off on Mondays, and you don't even have to be home or say hi, I'll just leave it for you and your family."
"I'd love to help and I love Rufus so much, so can I come over and walk the dog once a week for you guys? I can come Tuesdays or Thursdays."
"You just tell me which days I could pick up your little one from pre-school and I'll do it - I'm free every day but Fridays."
Some more unique ideas you might try
- Offer to create and manage a Caring Bridge - a website where updates can be posted in one beautiful, ad-free place online. You offering to do this takes a tremendous burden off mom by keeping all of the extended friends & family updated without mom having to be responsible for it all.
- Text a positive quote or inspirational saying once a day, and make it clear she doesn't have to respond. Just give her a reminder you're thinking of her and send her love.
- Send her a thoughtful letter, an inspiring card or just a hilarious postcard in the mail. Snail mail does wonders for the heart.
- Encourage her to follow Hello Preemie on Instagram so she can get all the positive quotes, helpful ideas and empowerment from our feed!
Please remember not to stop offering your support and help after the initial crisis is over. Preemie moms often feel lonely and abandoned by friends & family who don't know what they need or what to say, and as the weeks go on and on in the NICU they're still worried, exhausted and in great need of support. Be that rock star who sticks by her side through the whole darn time.
Oh yeah, and definitely tell her about Hello Preemie! She'll thank you for it!
What ideas do you have to share? We'd love to hear it!