What to Say to a NICU Parent

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I’ve never been very good at knowing what to say to someone when they’re going through a hard time. After going through some hard times myself, I realize that I have probably very often said the “wrong thing”. Earlier this week I posted a Survival Guide for others who find themselves spending time in the NICU. But the reality is that most of the people reading this never have and never will spend any time in the NICU. However, everyone reading this knows of at least one person who has spent time in the NICU. This post is for all of you. I know my thoughts won’t apply to every NICU parent. Based on my own experience and conversations with other NICU parents, these are my best suggestions on what you can say (and do) to help a NICU parent.

As I wrote this, I wondered if I was going too far. Having a baby in the NICU is not the most difficult thing in the world. I know there are plenty who suffer far greater trials. However, I still felt the thoughts may be helpful to some. My husband pointed out that much of this could probably be applied to interactions with anyone who is suffering. If you think all this is a bit overboard, feel free the glean the good and forget the rest. And, keep in mind, not everyone is the same and I can only share from my own experiences and conversations with a few others.

“My heart just broke for you…”

What do you say to someone who just had a baby…months earlier than they were “supposed to”? “Congratulations”? “I’m sorry”? “She’ll be fine”? “She’ll be home before you know it”? Dan and I have found that there is very little you can say and be of any real comfort to a newly arrived NICU parent.

After Abby had spent two and a half months at the hospital, Dan was riding up the elevator one day with a crowd of people. One of the ladies in the elevator was in a wheelchair and it came up in conversation that she had just had a c-section and had been transferred straight to UofM with a baby who was now in the NICU. The others on the elevator started offering their support and encouragement.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.”

“You’ll be home before you know it.”

“This is a great hospital.”

“What did you say?”, I asked Dan.

“Nothing. There’s nothing you can say. It wasn’t the right time.”

However, there was one conversation that stands out in my mind as being especially comforting. Lydia had just been born. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. As we walked into church the following Sunday, I wanted to stay close to Dan and avoid all conversation. I was tired, sad, emotional, and still trying to grasp what was happening. Afterward, of course, people came up to talk to me. One mother at church approached me with tears in her eyes and said, “When I heard, my heart just broke for you…”. It was the most comforting thing anyone had ever said to me.

Now, not everyone has the ability to sympathize in this way. Don’t fake it. If you’re able to honestly share in someone else’s suffering, by all means, offer your consolation. However, in many cases the best you can do is give a well-meaning hug.

Be Careful with Your Encouragement

I recently came across Proverbs 25:20. It says, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.”

For the most part, I will let that verse speak for itself. Someone who is separated from their tiny newborn baby will often have a “heavy heart”. Happy words may be just what they need to hear, or they may sting like icy wind on bare skin.

Ask Me about My Baby

It may seem like all I talk about is my baby. Maybe you think I get tired of giving everyone the same updates over and over. Maybe you think you should avoid the topic because it’ll make me sad.

But, please, do ask me about my baby. My baby is my life right now. I don’t have time for anything else. When my baby takes a step backwards, doesn’t have a good day, or isn’t making progress, my whole world feels a little cloudier. When my baby makes progress, gains weight, shows improvement, the sun comes out and I want everyone to know.

I know there is a whole world beyond the hospital and the universe doesn’t revolve around me (or my baby), but I don’t get to see that world right now. I will try hard to talk to you about all the other things, but the only thing on my mind lately is that little one lying in a hospital room.

Please Be Patient

I may not seem myself. You just might see me cry. Or maybe I look weary. It’s a hard circumstance to be in the NICU for so long, so please be patient with me.

Please be patient with me if you are pregnant, especially once you hit nine months. I rejoice with you, but sometimes seeing a very pregnant mommy might make me tear up a little. Some good friends of ours had a baby when Abby was a month old. Their little boy was in church when he was only two days old and I cried every time I saw him.

I felt terrible. I was happy for them. But I could hardly talk to them because I would break down. It wasn’t until after Abby was home that I could cheerfully visit and hear all about their birth story and the early days with their newborn. I don’t know if they noticed or not, but I am grateful that they are sweet and patient people who weren’t offended by my distance during those first weeks of their own baby’s life.

If you are pregnant or have a newborn while a friend is in the NICU, be patient if they seem awkward or distant.

Ten Practical Helps

If you do know someone who has a baby in the NICU, you may be wondering what practical things you can do to help them beyond just words. So here are a few ideas:

1. Pray for them. No matter where you live, how much time or money you have, this is one way you can help

2. Do their laundry. They don’t have time.

3. Clean their bathroom. They don’t have time.

4. Wash their dishes. They don’t have time.

5. Do any other tidying or cleaning…I think you get the point here.

6. Bring them a hot meal, a frozen meal, a gift card, a snack…

7. Offer to buy and deliver their groceries. You don’t have to pay for them yourself, just picking them up and saving them the trip will go a very long way. You can give them a bagful of random groceries, or you can ask for a list. Either way, they will probably appreciate it more than they can express.

8. Watch their kiddos…although it’s likely that many will offer to babysit, so be creative and choose one of the above suggestions that hasn’t already been taken.

9. Ask if there is anything you can do to help or bless them. Everyone has individual needs.

10. Visit their baby or send a card or gift. Hospital visits can get long and lonely, you are probably a welcome visitor.

Well, I hope those thoughts are helpful and not offensive or out-of-hand. Dan and I were very blessed by many who did and said loving and encouraging things for us throughout our NICU stays, and we are immensely grateful. In fact, I feel we could never repay many for their sacrificial kindness. And Abby agrees.

2 thoughts on “What to Say to a NICU Parent

  1. I shared a similar experience. The most comforting thing said to me when our child was in the NICU was “we are devastated for you”. I’ve never understood why people are so afraid to communicate emotion this way.

  2. Thank you, Justine…and Dan is right; it DOES apply to many situations. People mean well, as they try to say the “right” thing, but sometimes it comes out “wrong”. There are times when just a hug means so much. You’ve shared alot of very good suggestions… thank you. Love you.

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