A baby’s journey through the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is truly a roller coaster of milestones, emotions, exhaustion, and obstacles. When the day isn’t going well, the feelings of helplessness and sadness float to the surface. Good days balance out the bad ones and provide a glimmer of hope, growth, and healing. As a nurse specializing in caring for some of the sickest babies in the NICU, those with congenital heart defects, I know from experience that it is important for families to have a caring support system to help them on that roller coaster.
For some families, a NICU stay is expected, but for many, it is a total surprise, which can leave their support network unsure of how to help them. While there are a number of ways to support a friend when their baby is in the NICU, sending a thoughtful gift to mom or baby (or both!) can brighten their day and make the roller coaster a little less scary. Here are 10 of the best gifts for NICU babies.
1. Milestone cards
It’s so important for families to celebrate and remember their NICU baby’s milestones, even the smallest ones. I love the milestone cards from Every Tiny Thing. Families can position the cards next to their baby for photos, attach to their isolette or crib, or add to a keepsake journal. These milestone cards follow a baby’s journey through the NICU and include phrases like “today I weigh ___,” “no more IVs!,” and “I love kangaroo care!”
2. Personalized birth announcement
While letter boards are a trendy way to showcase the baby’s name, birthdate, and weight, some NICUs simply don’t have the space for items of that size. A personalized wooden sign can be a smaller alternative that families can still cherish. There are plenty of options available with an easy online search, but this one from Caden Lane also gives space for baby’s footprints. Footprints are completed at the time of birth for all babies; however, NICU nurses are usually more than happy to do a second set for something special like a birth announcement.
3. Pumping gifts for mom
For babies in the NICU, especially ones born early or with congenital heart disease, breast milk is preferred. While some babies are able to eat directly from the breast, others receive breast milk through special feeding tubes until they can eat on their own. In order to supply breast milk, NICU moms use an electric pump, hand pump, or hand express. Let’s face it: Pumping isn’t the most fun activity. A thoughtful gift can make pumping just a little easier. A bottle bag to keep milk cold when transporting breast milk from home to the hospital is highly recommended to keep the baby safe.
4. Hat and socks (but no clothes, please!)
The baby’s medical status or necessary medical equipment—pulse oximeters, IVs, temperature monitoring probes—can make dressing a NICU baby in traditional newborn clothing nearly impossible. Hats, bows, barrettes, and socks can be easier for the NICU nurse and family to use and allow a touch of personalization. Preemie hats are particularly useful when the baby is on mom’s chest for kangaroo care.
5. Babies love books!
Health care providers and families are learning more and more about the impact of neurodevelopmental care in the NICU and the impact of early literacy opportunities on long-term language development. Reading, talking, and softly singing to your baby during their NICU stay is calming and provides comfort, reduces postoperative pain, and creates bonding opportunities. Sometimes, the baby’s medical “accessories” can make it a little scary for families to provide routine care, but reading a book to the baby is always an option.
6. Personalized blanket
Blankets, like this one from Pottery Barn Kids, are a great multipurpose item for a NICU baby. When NICU babies are small and in isolettes, blankets can cover the isolettes to create the dark, developmentally appropriate environment a premature baby needs. During kangaroo care, the blanket can be draped around the baby’s back and across the mom’s chest to keep the duo warm. Once the baby has graduated from the NICU and is home, the blanket can be utilized for tummy time or floor play.
7. Scent cloths
Babies are comforted by their mother’s scent—while kangaroo care is encouraged often, it would be impossible for a NICU mama to hold their baby all day and night. A great way to provide mom’s scent when she isn’t there is by positioning a scent cloth near the baby in the isolette. Mom can wear a piece of fabric or reusable breast pad in her bra overnight and bring it to the NICU during the day.
8. Swaddle for home
NICU babies generally love being swaddled—it helps them maintain their temperature, inhibits an overactive startle reflex, and keeps them organized while feeding (it’s hard to eat, breathe, and maintain body position all at the same time!). Swaddling with a traditional blanket, especially at 2 a.m. when already sleep deprived, can be challenging for parents. A swaddle that uses velcro or zippers can make life so much easier. I love the Halo Sleep Sack in knit for warmer months and the fleece sleep sack for cooler months.
9. Gifts for parents
The NICU roller coaster can be incredibly taxing emotionally, physically, and financially for many. Gift cards for coffee, food, parking/gas, and groceries can go a long way. Cash for child care for older children, cleaning services, or meal delivery services is another thoughtful gift option for new parents. Even just reaching out and letting your friend know that you are available for them can be incredibly helpful.
Many families remain connected to the NICU, even after their baby graduates and goes home! Some NICUs host yearly fundraisers to raise money for the “extras” like rockers, books, mobiles, and positioning aids. Some families might appreciate a donation to a specific organization that supported them on their NICU journey. Check out March of Dimes, Children’s Heart Foundation, and Lion Tales Foundation.