It’s Neonatal Awareness Day on Tuesday September 30, which is a timely opportunity to talk about some of the challenges that parents whose baby is in a neonatal unit face. If someone close to you is one of these mummies or daddies you’ll probably want to know what to do to help them.
The emphasis is on taking away some of the normal day-to-day jobs and stresses so the parents can focus on their baby (or babies).
My own son, Hugo, was born when I was just 24 weeks’ pregnant. We were in a specialist hospital two hours’ away from home because I had been so ill and my son so premature. We were fortunate to be able to stay in a Ronald McDonald House on the hospital site.
Here are some pointers for family and friends, from my own experience:
1. Tell the parents what you can do for them
This is often more useful than asking what the parents need – sometimes your head is so scrambled you don’t even know what you need (besides a magic wand for it all to be made better).
As a neonatal parent you’re grateful for the offers of help, but it can be difficult to think what people can do for you. When you’re already knackered and stressed you really don’t want to do any more thinking than is necessary.
If you’re off to the supermarket ask the parents to give you their shopping list – or just pick up some shopping for them. When you’re a neonatal parent, you tend to eat to keep going, rather than for pleasure.
So, another idea might be to cook meals for the parents – something that’s easy to put in some Tupperware and pop in the oven or microwave to heat up.
If the baby has made a very early arrival, there may be all sorts of things the parents hadn’t got around to doing or buying yet. Offer to help with whatever they need, even if they might not know what they need straight away.
2. Gifts and treats
Cute little baby clothes can be a lovely idea because they can give parents a sense of hope and something to look forward to with seeing their baby in the outfit in the future (many babies in units don’t wear clothes so staff can see the baby’s skin, which can be a useful indicator about their condition).
Another useful gift idea is story books. Research has proven that the parents singing or talking to their baby has a positive impact on their development and stats. With the best will in the world, a one-way conversation with your baby becomes testing after a time. We read the story books we could get our hands on to Hugo again and again and wished we had more, for a bit of variety.
If you want to buy a treat for the parents, the simplest things are possibly the best. As a parent you need to have downtime but it can be difficult to concentrate on anything, so magazines to flick through can be handy.
Some babies may be in the unit for months. The parents will need a break every so often and some ‘couple time’, too. A thoughtful treat could include something like giving them some money to enjoy a dinner out together.
Constant handwashing in the unit results in very sore, chapped hands so a rich, indulgent hand cream can be a considerate gift. Daddies’ hands will get chapped too, so make sure the hand cream isn’t a flowery smelling one because they’ll probably be even less likely to use it than they would be anyway!
3. Keep in touch
The hours spent in a neonatal unit with your baby mean you can feel rather isolated from the outside world.
My best friend sent me a text first thing every single morning. In the text, she’d say encouraging things about Hugo’s progress – or consolatory words if it was the morning after a bad day. She’d also mention things about what she had done, and what her family had been up to. It’s difficult to describe exactly how much I appreciated that daily contact.
Other friends and family members sent regular texts, too. I treasured every one, as I did all the Facebook and Twitter comments. It can sometimes feel difficult to keep up with them all and send individual responses, so if you don’t get a response please don’t feel offended – I promise you, the parent will be very grateful to know you are thinking of them, and for sending positive thoughts for their baby.
4. Offer lifts
If the parents are commuting to the hospital daily, the cost of hospital parking can mount up, even with a subsidy. Driving to the hospital, and finding a parking space can often be an added hassle so if you can, offer to drive the parents to the hospital and pick them up whenever they are ready. Not having to drive can also give the parents a chance to catch up with you – or a valuable opportunity to relax and shut their eyes for a little while.
5. Laundry and cleaning
Some parents may not want to use their energy on household chores, but for some parents mindless tasks can be a good way to take your mind off things for a while – and take it all out on the cleaning. So while some parents may bite your hand off at the offer to do household chores, make sure you ask first.
6. It’s not about you
No matter how close the parents are to you, and how distressed you feel for them and the baby, remember the focus is on the baby.
While it is important to express sympathy and empathy of course, try not to burden the parents with your feelings.
The parents will take it as read that you are concerned and worried, too.
7. Be understanding about visiting
Most neonatal units are strict about the number of visitors each baby has for a number of reasons, including the risk of infection.
In the unit Hugo was in, he was only allowed two visitors at a time. We were grateful for the visitors who took the time to make the journey to come to see us. It was always lovely to see them, but it did mean only one of us was able to spend time with our baby while we were with our guest.
Being a neonatal parent can at times feel like being in an institution – your day is governed by a schedule that will include spending time with your baby, avoiding the ward rounds (when you are usually asked to leave the nursery), resting, eating and for mothers who express breast milk, that too. When you have visitors, something has to give, and that something is often the vital rest time.
Parents understand the excitement about seeing the baby and giving the parents hugs too. If you are asked not to come, please don’t take it personally. It is not that the parents do not want to see people or appreciate the offer of visits, but in this circumstance the visit can sometimes be an extra stress to deal with.
There are so many other things you can do to help, as outlined above.
If you’re close by, you could always pop to the hospital and take the parents out for a coffee during their usual rest time. This will offer a bit of a respite for them, but don’t be offended if they can’t stay long.
8. If the parents have other children, offer to look after them
Hugo is our only child, but I am aware from chatting to other parents who had older children at home that they often felt guilty that they were not able to spend as much time with their older children while their baby was in the unit.
The older children will still need to feel special of course, so you could offer to look after them for a while, or take them out.
If they are allowed to visit their baby brother or sister, the child may not be able to stay as long as the parents want to stay for. The parents may appreciate an extra pair of hands at the hospital to entertain the older child – perhaps take them to the hospital cafe, or home after they have visited the baby.
9. Understand there may not always be answers.
The neonatal environment can be bewildering, with all sorts of bleeping machines that do different things, different diagnoses, procedures, medicines, a variety of medical terminology and sometimes difficult decisions to make. For exhausted neonatal parents all of this can be an extra challenge.
The parents may not always be able to explain their baby’s condition, medication or prognosis beyond a very basic update. Try not to get frustrated, or to offer an opinion about the treatment options (unless you happen to be a neonatologist yourself!).
There are useful websites such as Bliss that explain things in general, simple terms if you want to know more about conditions, treatment options and how things in a neonatal unit work. Make sure the parents know about Bliss too, and that there is a helpline and online forum to help them get through the experience.
10. Advice for Neonatal Mummies also gives first-hand tips for the parents.
Have you had a baby in a neonatal unit? What did you find most helpful? Have I missed anything out?