The birth of a sick baby is an emotional time for everyone. As a grandparent you probably joyfully anticipated the birth of a healthy baby. It is natural to want to take your child’s fears, pain and anxiety away, but that is not what s/he needs right now. The parent(s) of the new baby need to be supported. They are going through a life crisis. Things to do that are helpful include:
Offer a hug, a tear, or other signs of love and concern.
Offer to be the family communicator.
Find out exactly whom to notify and what the baby’s parent(s) want others to know.
Communicate that information–no more.
Download the Friends and Family tip sheet HERE
Try to alleviate guilt. It is natural for a mother of a sick baby to feel guilty or responsible for the condition and problems of the baby. With rare exceptions, there was nothing the mother did to cause the baby to have problems. She needs to hear this over and over again. Sometimes having her talk to her obstetrician is reassuring.
If there are other children and they know you well, offer to care for them; spend extra time interacting with them, help them to feel as important as the baby.
Help with household chores: going on errands, getting groceries, cooking, picking up the house, caring for pets, providing transportation for their other children or for the parents.
When others call or offer to help, let them know exactly what they too can do to help; don’t turn them down.
Acknowledge the baby’s birth like your would if the baby had had problems, such as send flowers to the mother, buy something for the baby, take pictures. Gift suggestions: film for the camera; baby book, diary or calendar to record important events.
Become involved with the new baby only to the extent that the parent(s) desire.
Let the parents have time alone with the baby. If they wish you to be present in discussions they have with doctors and nurses, be a good listener, write down important points, suggest questions to the parents if they do not ask them; ask questions yourself if the parents do not. You are likely to remember more than they, so review the session with them later to help fill in important information. If they don’t invite you to become involved, accept their need for privacy.
Be empathetic regarding their concern for their child. Let them know how worried you were when your children became sick.
Help the parents keep their focus in the right place, on the baby. Decrease additional stresses in their lives. This means putting aside any personal problems, such as disagreements, conflicts with other grandparents or children, or feelings of being “left out”. This, too, may mean excusing them from family duties such as reunions, birthday parties, or gatherings.
Find something about the baby to complement at each visit, be it hair colour, eyes, willingness to fight, cute feet, long fingers, a loving staff of nurses, etc.
Praise your son/daughter/friend for his/her strength and fortitude through this stress; it provides encouragement.
Help your son/daughter/friend keep up with his/her health. They tend to focus only on the baby, sometimes risking their own health and well-being.
Suggest talking to a professional or seeking out medical help if the pressures grow too great.
When setbacks occur, go back over all the successes the baby has had to date; help them to acknowledge the battles the baby has already won. Even when setbacks seem minor, do not minimize how difficult they are for parents.
Offer to stay with them during NICU visits. Often a parent is alone. It can be a lonely time and just being there may help. If this is refused, though, don’t see it as a sign of exclusion; respect the space that your child or friend needs.
Be there for them when they need you. This might be during surgery or a sad moment, when dinners are needed, when they need a hand with the camera or merely a funny card. It may seem like your son/daughter/friend calls only in times of dire need, but that is when they need your help the most.
Keep in touch often, even if it’s only leaving a message on an answering machine telling them you care. Often evenings are a good time to see how the baby’s day went. Keep the conversation going only as long as your son/daughter/friend wishes. Remember, they are physically and emotionally exhausted and may just need to know you are thinking of them and their baby. Keep questions general, such as “how was the baby’s day today?”. Try not to ask if everything is “all right”; there is always something that is not right — often it’s just the mere fact that the baby is still hospitalized. They will provide information when they are ready to share it. Often, parents will only tell you that it’s been a bad day. Respect the fact that they do not wish to rehash the painful event again.
What shouldn’t I do as a grandparent, family, or friend?
Things which may NOT helpful include:
Creating guilt by suggesting that the mother contributed to her baby’s problems; for example saying, “You shouldn’t have ___ while you were pregnant” (smoked, worked, gone swimming, etc.) or, “If only you ______”.
Trying to take over decision making for the baby’s parents. It is their baby and they need to be the ones making the decisions. Provide your opinions only if asked.
Frequently verbalizing your concerns about the baby’s outcome, whether s/he will live or die, or focusing on the possibility of future problems or disabilities. Usually babies do much better than grandparents or friends anticipate.
Saying, “You can always have another baby” if the baby is very sick or dying. It does not make the situation any better or easier to handle. Instead, it implies rejection of the baby and lack of sympathetic understanding. Also, no one knows for sure if they can have another baby.
Comparing your son/daughter’s circumstance or baby to that of someone else.
Telling parents that this is a good time to catch up ahead of time for all those sleepless nights when the baby comes home. It is difficult for parents to sleep with all the worry, stress, being apart from their baby, and often pumping breastmilk every few hours.
Questioning the skill of the nurses or doctors and/or the completeness of the information they provide. The parents need to form a bond of trust with their medical team; this undermines that trust.
Pitying the baby. (”I just can’t bear to see him this way”, “he’s in so much pain”,etc.) It makes the parents feel even more helpless and guilty.
Ascribing the mother’s reaction to “hormones”. While hormones are indeed out of kilter now, they are not the primary reason that the baby’s mother is upset. The parents, and their baby, probably are facing the biggest challenge in their lives. They are afraid; the situation is completely new and unfamiliar.
Asking when the baby will come home. Parents do not usually know until shortly before the day comes and there are often unforeseen setbacks that interfere with homecoming.
Remember, parents keep this question in their minds always.