Supporting early births
The NICU experience is made easier through the kindness of others
Six years ago when Katie Gonzalez’s son, Matthew, was born at 24 weeks gestation and weighed only 1 pound, 5 ounces, he was the smallest baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Overland Park Regional Medical Center. He stayed there for 121 days and endured a number of procedures and complications.
“It’s extremely overwhelming and frightening, especially if you expected to take home a healthy baby,” Gonzalez says. “You almost go through a period of grieving. You had one expectation for your unborn child, and you are thrown into a completely different world.”
Matthew is now a healthy and active boy, and Gonzalez helps support other parents traveling the same journey through the Circle of Hope NICU Foundation. The foundation provides encouragement for parents of babies at Overland Park Regional Medical Center through care packages, gas cards, parent enrichment materials, meals, developmental toys for the babies, activities for siblings and more.
“In the midst of the darkness that envelops you in those early days, it’s easy to get lost as a parent,” she says. Members of the community can help parents find their way during such a time. Gonzalez says she felt incredibly supported when her neighbors brought meals and she was able to connect with other NICU parents.
Jennifer Robinson, a former NICU mom who now works for the March of Dimes, says celebrating and congratulating a family at the birth of a baby is always extremely important—even if the baby is in the NICU. She says while it might not have been the ideal birth experience, a wonderful new addition to the family always should receive much excitement.
Robinson suggests simply asking families what they need, which could range from helping with other children in the family or bringing meals, to doing laundry, mowing the lawn and the like.
The March of Dimes works in conjunction with Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City in many NICU efforts, including helping connect parents who experienced a NICU journey with parents of babies currently in the hospital. This gives parents an understanding shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen.
Rebecca Kunden, also with the March of Dimes, says she is always seeking out volunteer photographers who are willing to donate their services for NICU families. These families are often not able to have professional photographs of their babies because of their circumstances, and this donated service provides them with a precious keepsake.
Volunteering to hold babies in the NICU is another way to serve these families. The individualized attention and touch volunteer “cuddlers” give these babies make a significant impact on their future growth and development. When Amy Kline’s daughter, Jordyn, was born at just 24 weeks gestation and only 1 lb., 10 oz,, she felt fear mixed in with the joyful experience of a child’s birth. Little Jordyn was in the NICU at Saint Luke’s Hospital for seven-and-a-half months, required multiple surgeries and began her life very fragile.
If life in the NICU weren’t stressful enough for Kline, she was also a single mom needing to work and also had a busy 2-year-old at home. She could take a breather and rest assured knowing when she couldn’t be at the hospital, several volunteers faithfully came to hold and cuddle Jordyn and give her specialized individual attention.
Today, “baby” Jordyn is 5-and-a-half years old, in kindergarten and keeping up with all the kids her own age. Looking back, Kline says between the cuddling, reading, blankets and rocking chairs in the NICU, Jordyn felt like she was a baby even if she was in the hospital.
“I had a connection with these nurses, and I had a connection with these cuddlers,” Kline says. “It helped me cope.”
Support with housing is also important to families with a fragile baby. Many families travel a great distance to a hospital, and these families often seek out the assistance of the Ronald McDonald house for somewhere to stay.
Donations of board books and blankets are always needed as well. And at Halloween and Christmas, many hospitals like to place miniature costumes on the babies to add some festivity to their first holidays. These costumes are often handmade and make for memorable photographs.
All these efforts make a lasting difference in the lives of NICU families. Looking back, Gonzalez says the NICU journey was a tough road to travel, but the experience was a fulfilling one. She was supported in many ways, and that is a large part of why she is able to look back and feel that way.
How to get involved
Looking for a service project? Here are some practical ways to support NICU families:
- Volunteer to hold NICU babies.
- Donate blankets or board books to a hospital.
- Consider monetary donations that can be used for various NICU programs.
- Bring meals to NICU families or offer to babysit their other children.
- Volunteer with the Ronald McDonald House.
Allison Gibeson is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer from Lee’s Summit.