To commemorate NICU Awareness month, I’ve decided to compile a list of helpful phrases to leave out of your mouth when speaking to a parent of a child in the NICU. Of course this list is based solely off of my experience and may differ from person to person based on their temperament. At anyrate, I believe this list covers a few commonly used phrases by people who don’t know what else to say
Of course if you know someone who has a child in the NICU, things are likely to be a bit precarious for a while and we all have been at a loss for words when attempting to console or check in. While there is never any way to know what a parent may need to hear, what I do know is there are a few things that a NICU parent NEVER wants to hear so here they are in no particular order.
5. “You’re GOING to be a great parent”. While this statement seems super supportive and positive it is deceiving. The use of the word “going” highlights the misconception that this mother is not yet a parent. A parent…a mother in particular, becomes a parent at the point of conception. It may be argued that it isn’t “real” until the child has been birthed, even with that thought, a NICU parent HAS birthed their child. They make life and death decisions daily, they worry and obsess about every decision, they are devoted to their child and their child’s survival, this means they ARE good parents. They are not waiting to go home in order to start parenting, like every other parent, their job starts promptly after delivery at the latest. Don’t negate their devotion to their child simply because they are not able to care independently for their child 24/7. If you want to uplift a NICU parent, tell them they are doing a great job and that the ARE good parents and their child’s best advocate. This is sometimes just enough to keep a weary parent from pulling their hair out.
4. “Take that baby home” this may communicate your desire for the baby to meet a healthy transition into the arms of the parent but what the parent hears is a reminder of how long it’s been and a slight judgement on the part of whomever is speaking. We all want baby home, yes but we want baby home safe and healing to a point that is manageable for the parent to be able to deal without the constant help and supervision of a medical team. Hospitals are businesses nowadays so trust me when I say, as soon as the child is ready, they will send them home. There are no doctors asking parents, “do you feel like taking your child home today?” And what’s more, there are no parents that would respond “eh naw not today, ask me about it tomorrow”. Demanding that a parent do something that they can’t control or stipulates is just a reminder of how out of control they are. If you must ask, ask if they know when the child is coming home which isn’t always a welcome question either as its hard to know these type of things far in advance due to the roller coaster nature of the NICU.
3. “When they do come home, you will never sleep again”
While this may in fact be true, the chances that a NICU parent doesn’t already know this are slim to none. I would almost go as far as to say a NICU parent craves the sleepless nights due to feedings and diaper changes and general crankiness as opposed to never getting a good night’s rest due to their child being across town instead of down the hall. In a situation that is already taxing, a NICU parent doesn’t need a reminder of the negative. Supportive and affirming visions about what home life will be like are what’s needed, not ominous predictions about how they will be uncomfortable. Parents don’t sleep, period. We all know that babies change our sleep patterns. NICU parents have enough dread and worry, try to relieve that with support and excitement.
2. “You aren’t the only one to go through this”
That of course is an unfortunate truth. As of 2012, 1 out of 9 births in the US was a premature birth according to the CDC. But the problem is that more than likely, YOU have not gone through this. Just like every pregnancy is different and every birth is different, every NICU scenario is different and all of them are challenging. To minimize an experience that you have no idea about, to downplay a situation you have never come close to, is insensitive and unfair. Depending on how the NICU Mom is handling things, you may not be aware of the severity. Things may look fine but could be crumbling. Things change very quickly in the NICU, what is promising one minute may very well deteriorate the next. It takes an especially strong (or sedated) person to handle all of this. Give them respect If you can’t support. “Good job”, “I’m proud of you”, these are things you can say in replacement for a comment that degrades all the work a NICU mom is doing to stay above water and to keep her family above water.
1. “Die” “death” “dying” “tie dye”. Pretty much any word that is associated with or sounds like the “D” word.
The one harsh and unrelenting reality that takes hold of even the most optimistic of NICU mom’s is the thought of death. There is no secret that children born premature are at high risk for death given their individual challenges, there is no reason to discuss it unless the NICU mom wants to. It’s there, they are thinking about it, it’s sitting in the back of their mind. Just steer clear. While my son was in the NICU I avoided movies, books, television shows and all types of media that dealt with death. It’s amazing how saturated our media is with death when you pay attention. Needless to say, I stayed away from the T.V. and was very picky about my books. The thought was too much to handle. Even family discussing religious death set me off. I didn’t want to talk or think about it. It was all I could do to stay focused on my son’s improvement. Long story short, watch your words. If the NICU mom wants to talk about it, then have at it. Everyone processes differently. My advice, mums the word until given notice it’s ok.
Words have power and sometimes in our attempt to relate or console in a hard situation, we say the wrong thing. Coming from a NICU mom, sometimes presence is enough. Take the lead from the mom or the dad, if they are smiling then smile, if they are crying let them cry, this is NOT about you. Support, encouragement, and affirmation are what’s needed most. We appreciate you, we love you, we are cranky and emotional, we just ask that you watch your words. Like the old adage says, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Supporting someone through probably the roughest time of their life is difficult, the easiest thing to do is let them lead and stay positive. Hold space for them, you don’t have to “fix it”, you can’t. Being there is paramount, whether it’s being there in the hospital or being there over the phone to remind them to take care of themselves.
I am glad we are out of the hospital, the battle for my son’s continued growth and health still rages, the ones who made the difference were the ones who were just THERE. Support people are underrated and often not recognized but I am here to say thank you and offer a gift to be referenced when you just don’t know what to say.
Ana Temple Rodney is Aiden’s Mom. She is an author, doula, yoga instructor, Reiki master, and mom advocate based in Baltimore, Maryland. Ana is the Founder of The Rising Mama Brand and MOMCares initiative. The Rising Mama is a brand that serves mothers and families in the Baltimore area through Reiki energy healing services, body positive yoga instruction, and supportive doula services.
The MOM Cares initiative is a program that offers free postpartum doula services to mothers in the NICU that are under supported, facing financial stressors, and women of color. Services include transportation, meals, bedside advocacy, mindful wellness opportunities for mom, baby sitting for older siblings, and self care opportunities.
Find us on the web at