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How to Support a Friend With a Premature Baby

Latest Stories
Latest Stories

From a mum who's been through it.

Finding the perfect gift for a new mum and baby is a guaranteed serotonin hit. It’s also both simple and satisfying due to clever newborn lists, gift registries and education around what new parents really need. But buying a gift for a new mum whose baby is premature and in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) adds a few more layers of complexity. For starters, what’s even appropriate to buy someone who’s going through the toughest experience of their life? Do you buy presents for the premature baby now, or later? How do you show your support if they’ve got a long hospital stay ahead of them?

While I don’t speak for all premature mums, I am well-versed in the daily grind of the NICU. My daughter Violet was in the NICU for 77 days in 2020 after she was born extremely prematurely at 26 weeks’ gestation. She weighed a tiny 696 grams and received life-saving care at the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney.

Permit me to state the obvious, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever endured. Violet was essentially growing outside of the womb in her incubator, and each day we watched in terror — and wonder — as she fought and grew stronger and was weaned off breathing support, until finally she was well enough to be taken home.

More than 26,000 babies are born preterm (before 37 weeks’ gestation) each year in Australia — roughly 8% of all births. That’s a lot of premature babies potentially spending time in the NICU. The length of their stay depends on how premature they were and whether there are other health complications, but even one day in the NICU can be a traumatising experience.

On the other side of this, there is also so much joy to be had in celebrating these miracle babies and every incredible milestone they achieve. While it’s natural for friends to struggle with how they can help, there are lots of ways to show support for mum and baby, and that support will mean the world. Here’s a special list of what to buy a special little person and their parents to show you're there for them.

A beautiful, soft blanket.

The best part of my day was, without a doubt, the kangaroo (skin-to-skin) cuddles. Violet was allowed out of her incubator for one long hug a day during her first few months in the NICU. Kangaroo care is when your baby is placed on top of your bare chest, their head turned to one side, and a blanket is placed over you both. These cuddles are not only a chance for you to hold your tiny baby in a safe environment, but they also have lots of health benefits. They are my most treasured memories of the NICU. I used to deprive myself of water beforehand just so I could have maximum hug time without needing the toilet (probably not advisable!). A beautiful soft blanket is the perfect gift, and it will always hold special memories of those precious first hugs.



Anything to make pumping more bearable.

While some mums in the NICU can’t or choose not to breastfeed, those who do intend to breastfeed need to pump eight times a day to provide milk for the feeding tubes and to keep their supply up. Breastfeeding is hard. Full stop. But it’s soul-destroying pumping milk from a machine over and over again, especially overnight when you wake up to an alarm instead of the hungry cries of your newborn. Anything to help this process would be greatly appreciated. Whether it’s an on-the-go pump, feeding tops or bras she’s probably not had the chance to think about (I certainly hadn’t!), or lotions and potions to soothe sore boobs, this is such a useful show of support. A chic cooler bag to transport the milk to the hospital from the fridge overnight (and bring in snacks!) would also be a welcome gift.



Books and journals.

The 77 days spent in hospital felt never-ending at times. There was a lot of waiting around and sitting by Violet’s bedside. I often felt incredibly lonely (it was during the first wave of the COVID pandemic and only one parent was allowed in the NICU at one time), and the bustling unit could cause some serious sensory overload. Getting lost in a good book was a godsend. Keeping a journal is also a great way to pass the time, documenting the rollercoaster journey and allowing you to see how far your baby has come. I also probably drove the nurses mad by reading out loud to Violet, but I wanted her to know I was with her. A book like Your Little Head Start is a beautiful read and probably more appropriate than some of the reading Violet was subjected to (i.e. The Australian Financial Review, read by Dad when he’d forgotten a book. Poor kid).



A NICU heart.

The nurses gave me tiny bits of cloth to wear in my bra that were then placed next to Violet in her incubator. They’re called ‘NICU hearts’ or ‘Bonding squares.’ The idea is that this little piece of fabric bonds you and your baby with familiar scent, even when you’re not there. Nothing can prepare you for leaving your child in a hospital night after night, so you cling to anything that helps you feel close to them. Volunteers often sew fabric into little hearts and the crafty among us can download sewing patterns, but even cutting a little square of fabric would do the trick. We have kept the NICU hearts our friend Annette sewed for us as it was just the most thoughtful gift.



A heavy duty hand cream and nice body care.

Real talk. Our knuckles and fingers were cracked, peeling messes by the end of the first week. An industrial strength hand cream is a must for NICU parents given you need to wash your hands thoroughly each time you enter the unit and use the hospital sanitiser before touching, well, anything. Our complexions were also pretty much grey by the time we left the hospital so any sort of easy-to-use revitalising skincare. I can almost guarantee you that a NICU mama isn’t taking care of herself, so someone needs to!



Hospital-friendly clothing.

I was deliriously happy when I finally got to put clothes on Violet — such a normal thing that was monumental for us. She was still super tiny (just over 1kg) when we were first allowed to dress her as she was out of critical care. Just make sure you don’t buy onesies that have closed feet as these won’t be suitable for hospital as wires won’t be able to fit through. Onesies with no feet that have poppers or little ties are best. And don’t forget about clothes for mum. Think the comfiest sweats and softest tees to throw on. Honestly one less thing to worry about.



Milestone celebrations and graduation present.

Milestones for premature babies are slightly different from the norm. Life’s Little Treasures charity provided us with premature milestone cards when we were admitted to the NICU, and we ached to finally use the ultimate milestone card: ‘I have graduated from the NICU’. These can be purchased online. The day we brought Violet home was something we’d dreamed about from the moment she was born but the last week flew by as we were getting everything organised at home. I wish we’d bought her a proper graduation present. I think this is such cute way for friends and family to mark a new chapter in that baby’s life. A special outfit or plush toy to mark the occasion, and a nice picture frame for your first family photo at home. And your little miracle needs a memory box to mark their amazing achievements.


A hospital donation.

It was easy to feel helpless in a sea of machines and beeping. A donation to the hospital in your baby’s name goes a little way in easing the helplessness and will help other sick babies. The Royal Hospital for Women will double donations on November 23 as part of their annual Giving Day appeal. These donations will help save babies’ lives — the best gift of all.


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