When I was pregnant with my twin boys, I had visions of giving birth to two healthy, full-term babies. But things didn’t turn out that way. Instead, my sons were born prematurely, at 28 weeks, and spent two months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU.
During that all-consuming time, when I was at the NICU every day, and my husband joined me there after work, my mother and my in-laws rose to the occasion. They visited regularly, brought us food, and were thrilled when the nurses eventually gave them the okay to hold their tiny grandsons.
Premature babies (defined as being born before the 37th week of pregnancy), make up nearly 13 percent of all U.S. births, according to the March of Dimes, so it's likely you or someone you know could become the grandparent of a preemie. Following are some suggestions on how best to help your family if your grandchild arrives early, based on my firsthand experience, and that of others who've been there.
Prepare for a Bumpy Ride
People describe the NICU experience as an emotional roller-coaster ride, and with good reason. Preemies undergo frequent testing and blood transfusions, and typically experience setbacks. Their condition can change on a daily basis.
It can be a traumatic experience, and some grandparents handle the stress better than others. But while you'll obviously be very worried about your grandchild, falling apart in the NICU is not helpful to anyone.
Rebecca Herranen of San Diego knows the stress firsthand. She spent almost three months with her daughter in the NICU after her granddaughter, Ava, was born in 2003. Considered a "micro-preemie," Ava, now 7, weighed just 1 pound, 15 ounces, when she was born at 26-and-a-half weeks.
"When we realized how small Ava was, our greatest fear was that she would not survive," says Herranen, who now runs a website, AvaBabys.com, specializing in preemie and micro-preemie clothing. "But as grandparents, you have to dig down deep and find the courage to be strong for your kids, because they're terrified. This is their child."
Dr. Jennifer Gunter, an OB/GYN from Mill Valley, Calif., found that her parents' constant questioning only added to her anxiety when she gave birth to premature triplets in 2003; two of her sons survived.
"My parents just kept asking me all these questions: When are you coming home? When are they going to get better?" recalls Gunter, author of The Preemie Primer (Da Capo, 2010). "There are so many unknowns — you don't know if your baby's coming home soon, or how long he's going to be on a respirator. And having someone constantly ask you those questions is like reopening a wound."
Gunter recommends that grandparents acknowledge what their children are going through — and then respond proactively. She advises, "Say, This must be so hard for you. How can I help? or, That sounds very stressful. What can I do?"
Stay Behind the Scenes
Sometimes, the best thing grandparents can do is not to visit the NICU each day, but to keep things running smoothly at home. While parents juggle work responsibilities and NICU visits, there might be an older sibling to take care of, groceries to buy, or laundry to do — and that's where you come in.
Long-distance grandparents can also help out by sending gift cards to local restaurants, arranging for meal deliveries, or hiring a cleaning service for the family.
"Whatever the mom and dad want, Herranen says, "if it's in your power to help them do it or get it, then do that."
Spread the News
Family and friends are often eager for updates on how a preemie is doing. But it can be exhausting, if not impossible, Gunter says, for parents to recount each day's events by e-mail, much less to return endless, if solicitous, phone messages — Yes, he's still on a G-tube; Yes, he's still on a ventilator.
Grandparents can help by keeping everyone updated on the baby's progress. That might mean making calls or sending e-mails, starting a blog, or creating a page about your grandchild on a website like CaringBridge.com, which offers free, easy-to-use templates. Whatever you decide to report, be sure to get the parents' okay first.
And then look forward to the day when your precious grandbaby arrives home at last!
Are you the grandparent of a baby born prematurely? How did you handle the situation? Share your experience in the Comments section below.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.