Say This, Not That: How to Support the NICU Mom in Your Life.
One in ten babies will be born premature, which means that one in ten moms, and families, will spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). While well meaning, people oftentimes will attempt to manage their own discomfort by finding the silver lining. When we focus on the positive without also embracing uncomfortable truths (e.g., we don’t know if things will be okay), and feelings (fear, anger, sadness, to name a few), we do moms a disservice. Moms begin to feel alone in their struggles, and as though they cannot receive the support they may need. The below is a guide on ways you can navigate a vulnerable situation and create emotional space for a mom to feel supported by you.
“I’m here for you if you feel like you are ready to talk.”
This statement should be repeated throughout the course of the NICU stay, and if baby comes home. You are letting her know that she can reach out to you when she is ready without pressuring her to share feelings/thoughts that she may not want to discuss. Many NICU families continue to struggle if they bring baby home as this transition is often frought with fear, exhaustion and worry about baby's health. So keep reminding her that you are there for her whenever she is ready.
“I know of so many preemies who are doing great now!”
This may be true, but minimizes the entirety of a moms experience in the NICU. These moms are in a shared space with many babies and families who may be fighting for their lives. You have no idea what this mom and family witnesses or experiences during the time they spend at the NICU. You also don’t know what the outcome of their NICU stay will be.
“How are you and baby doing today?”
Things rapidly change during a mom’s NICU stay, and each day is unpredictable. Check-in with her about how she’s doing and how the baby is doing. You never know what each day may bring.
“You and baby are going to be just fine.”
Well, we hope so, but you don’t know that this will actually happen. It's okay to not know, and sitting in the unknown can be tough. Instead, check-in with yourself, and be curious about why you want to predict the future. Can it be that you are trying to manage your own feelings of discomfort? Is the above statement more for you then it is for mom?
Watching loved ones experience a premature birth can bring up many feelings and thoughts. Make sure you take care of yourself so that you can be there in ways that matter for the moms in the NICU in your life.
“I would like to be helpful. Some ideas I have include home-cooked meals, and giving you rides to the NICU. Are there other ways I can help?”
Be proactive. Moms are usually trying to spend as much time at the NICU as possible so rides may be necessary especially if partner goes back to work. Home-cooked meals are great for the same reason, and can be extra helpful for moms who may have other children at home. Household chores need to get done as well. Of-course, honor boundaries, and always check-in with the mom first.
“Let me know if you need help.”
Don’t place the responsibility on the mom to identify ways in which you can be helpful. Moms are overwhelmed, and may not be able to let you know how to help in the moment. Also, your offer to help may have been some time ago when she was not ready to accept your help. She may feel as though too much time has passed, and the offer no longer stands.
“Just in case you don't know already, you are not to blame for any of this.”
Guilt is a very common feeling among moms in the NICU who will blame themselves for their babies being born too soon. Some share that their “bodies” failed them while others wonder if they did “something wrong” during their pregnancy to cause the pre-term birth. Making this statement helps acknowledge the fact that they did nothing wrong.
“You look so good! You didn’t have to suffer through the third trimester.”
Actually, let’s do all women a favor, and not say this to any new moms. We don’t know her story, and what her mind/body/soul has been through. This is especially true of NICU moms who may be harboring guilt about their “bodies failing them.” A lot of women would loved to gain the weight and experience the third trimester.
Your support of a mom in the NICU is invaluable. In the end, NICU moms will remember how you were able tolerate the unknown, and feelings of discomfort while being a source for strength and hope.