In honor of World Prematurity Day, November 17, here’s a special post for my fellow NICU moms.

Leaving a baby in the hospital is one of the most difficult things a new mom can experience.  It can leave a hole in your heart so big you don’t think you’re going to survive.  My sweet Miss O was in the NICU for 54 days after her early arrival.  She came home the day after her due date.  It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but there are millions of parents who deal with it each year.

Help 3

For those on the outside, it can be hard to know what to do.  So if you know someone who’s the mom (or dad) of a preemie, here are a few specific ways you can help.

Transportation: Many preemies are born via C-section and moms are told not to drive for 2 weeks, yet we’re asked to leave the hospital after our few days are up.  If dad has to go back to work (because of our sucky paternity leave policy), mom is on her own with no way to get back to see her baby.  A ride to the hospital, or home, gives mom the only thing she needs – a chance to see her baby.

Housework or Errands: When Miss O was in the NICU my days looked like this; Get up, go to the hospital for 5-6 hours, come home for a quick dinner, return to the hospital with Mr. O, go home and go to sleep (and pump).  Cleaning my house, doing laundry, cooking, and even buying groceries were the furthest things from my mind. If it weren’t for having help we wouldn’t have had a home that was fit to bring a child home to.

Help Set Up the Nursery: Some moms of preemies have some advance warning of their baby’s early arrival.  Others, like me, do not.  In any case, the nursery is often not ready when baby is born.  I found it extremely helpful – hopeful – to put my nursery together.  We had painted walls and a crib, but arranging the room and putting up decorations made it feel more real that, yes – someday – she would come home.

Financial Support: There are lots of ways having a preemie can be a financial strain on a family. Besides the medical costs that go with an extended hospital stay, there’s often a loss of income for a longer period than the family was planning. My maternity leave was up before my daughter even came home. Also, many families have to travel long distances to see their NICU babies because their local hospital couldn’t handle them. Gas cards are a useful gift, as a are gift certificates to restaurants near the hospital.

Something to Do: It can be boring sitting in a hospital day in and day out for days, weeks, or months. Magazines, books, sudoku puzzles, etc. are a godsend.  If you want to win friend of the year, fill a kindle gift card up every couple of weeks so mom can pick out a few new things to read.  Gifts and cards tend to trickle off after a few weeks even though baby’s still in the hospital.

Just listen: People sometimes don’t know what to say to NICU parents.  They don’t want to push, they don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they don’t say anything.  Really, the best thing to say is, “Would you like to talk?”  Then just listen.  There were times I wanted to talk about my baby, there were times I wanted to talk about anything but.  Just listen.  Ask questions – if you don’t understand the medical jargon (NICU moms start talking like extras on Grey’s Anatomy), if you don’t know what a carseat test is, if you want to know a how or why something happens – but understand if she doesn’t want to talk about some things.

Obviously every family and situation is different.  Don’t just barge in to your friend’s house, vacuum in hand, but ask if doing some cleaning would be helpful.  As in most situations, a specific offer is best.  “Is there anything I can do,” is fine, but when a NICU mom is just hanging on, she may not be able to think of anything but her baby.  That doesn’t mean she doesn’t need help, she’s just too tired, overwhelmed, and (often) depressed to see beyond her immediate needs.

Be available.  Be open.  Be positive.  Be a friend.