Having a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is stressful for the entire family, including big brothers and sisters. How children respond to having a sibling in a NICU depends partly on their ages. A toddler may be most upset at being separated from you. Older children may be worried about the baby. You can make the experience a little easier on your other children by spending some special time with them and explaining what's happening with their baby brother or sister. When your children are relaxed and coping well, you may be able to cope better, too.
You may wonder how you're going to help your children cope when you're having trouble coping yourself. And you may wonder where you're going to find the time when your baby needs you, too. But even a little bit of your time can make a big difference. And remember — you can handle this experience and you can help your other children handle it, too. Here are some things to think about.
What Your Children May Feel
Your children may experience many different feelings during your baby's NICU stay. If your children are old enough, encourage them to talk about their worries and to ask questions. This will help you understand what they are feeling. Reassure them that their feelings are normal, and that you share some of them. While each child is unique, many experience some of these feelings:
How Your Older Children May Behave
Try to set aside some special time each day with each of your older children. Small, but meaningful, moments like snuggling together while reading a bedtime story, preparing breakfast together or singing songs while riding in the car can help reassure your children that you love them.
Be honest with your children. They may have many questions, but they may not know how to ask.
Explain to your children what's going on with their baby brother or sister in words they can understand. For example, you could tell them that the baby is too small or too sick to come home and must stay in the hospital until he is bigger and stronger. Also explain that you will need to be away from home more than usual to be with the baby in the NICU.
Let your children know that you may sometimes be upset or even cry because you are worried about the baby, but you are not upset over anything they did.
Try to maintain your children's daily routines as much as possible. This can help make the situation less stressful for your children. When you can't be there, ask a favorite relative or other caregiver to keep up visits to the playground or other activities your children enjoy.
Calm your children's worries. Some children may fear that you will love them less now that the new baby is here. Reassure them that this is not the case, and describe the qualities in each child that make her special and unique. Make sure your children understand that nothing they did or felt contributed to the baby's illness. Some children also fear that they may need to be treated in the NICU if they become ill. Reassure them that only sick babies need special care in the NICU, not big, strong children like them.
What Big Brothers and Sisters Can Do
It's important for your children to become involved with their baby brother or sister right from the start. The birth of a baby is a major event for the entire family, and your older children should not be left out. If possible, you should bring your older children to the NICU to meet and spend time with the new baby. (See below for a discussion of how to prepare your children for visiting the NICU.)
There are also activities your children can do at home to help care for the baby. While your baby is in the NICU, you may want to ask your older children to:
Preparing Your Children for the NICU
When their baby brother or sister is in the NICU, your older children may be upset or worried. No matter how old they are, your children need your support during this difficult time. Even though your time is limited, there are many simple things you can do to help your children cope.
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© 2009 March of Dimes Foundation. All rights reserved. The March of Dimes is a not-for-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3). Our mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality.