Grandparents on the Neonatal Unit

It can be a struggle for friends & family of parents experiencing neonatal care. There really isn’t anything you can say or do to make it better, but there are lots of things friends & family can do to make parents lives less stressful.

It can be hard for grandparents on the neonatal unit. Seeing your grandchild or grandchildren in neonatal care is tough, especially if they are very premature or poorly. Grandparents on the neonatal unit will naturally worry about the baby, but they also have to watch their son or daughter experience fear and trauma. Grandparents on the neonatal unit are often the centre of a support network for parents, especially if they’re looking after siblings, keeping up with the practical jobs at home, and are the main source for information and updates for everyone else. It can be draining. You may have to put everyone else’s feelings before your own. You may feel a bit useless, like there is nothing you can do. Trust us when we say your support is so important and many of us couldn’t function without you.


Here are some tips from other grandparents on the neonatal unit:

  • Try and make some time for yourself if possible. You might be run ragged trying to help but you’re no good to anyone if you don’t eat, rest and sleep.
  • As situations change quickly in NICU so may plans, especially when it comes to visitors. Don’t feel afraid to ask people not to visit if that’s what your son or daughter want. People will understand.
  • It’s tempting to take over. When my grandson was born my daughter wanted me by her side constantly. When he became stable, she kept making excuses why I shouldn’t be on the unit all the time. I took it personally and it was only after we had a few words I realised she just needed time to bond with him. I stepped back a little for a while and it helped her and her partner work on being his parents. It allowed me to concentrate on becoming a grandma too and I soon got my cuddles.
  • Try not to keep referring to how you did things with your own babies. It was only when my son in law snapped at me about it I realised it wasn’t helping. Things are different now and babies in NICU have different needs.

Friends & family

Watching someone you care about go through the trauma of neonatal care isn’t easy. You probably don’t know what the right thing to say is. There isn’t a right thing to say.

With the best will in the world it is impossible to understand what parents are going through unless you have experienced it. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer help and support to the baby’s parents. There are lots of things you can do that will make a difference.

Cards and gifts

The chances are standard new baby cards and a sleep suit won’t be appropriate for these circumstances. Some parents may want to be congratulated on the birth of their baby, whereas others may be offended by the very thought when their baby is so sick. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer for this; it depends on the individual. Almost all parents will appreciate you buying them some practical things. A nice idea is to put a little hamper together for parents. Here are a few ideas:

  • Hand cream – an absolute necessity for hands that are washed hundreds of times a day.
  • Lip balm – lips can get sore and cracked in the hot neonatal environment.
  • Change – a bag of pound coins will be more useful than you can imagine.
  • Baby blanket – nearly all babies on the neonatal will spend time undressed initially, and sometimes for weeks after birth. This can be hard for parents who want their babies to have something of their own. A brightly coloured blanket that belongs to the baby can make all the difference.
  • Chocolate – it’s a necessity on the neonatal unit.
  • Vouchers – for the local coffee shop or restaurant. The cost of eating and drinking can add up.
  • A phone charger – a spare phone charger can be a lifeline. Check what phone they have first.
  • Food – We all need to eat. All to often parents with a baby in neonatal care will put their own needs last and will forget to eat, or grab something convenient. Offer to cook meals that can be frozen and heated up in a microwave at the hospital. Do some shopping for them and drop off healthy snacks, drinks or treats. It might not seem much but it will be really appreciated and completely useful.

Giving parents time

Parents will probably need lots of space. Their lives have been turned upside down and it may be difficult for them to get through the day. As much as you want to visit to show your support, please don’t be offended if they ask you not to. The neonatal world is unpredictable. Parents sometimes feel in the way and can struggle to feel like parents to a very sick or premature baby who requires a lot of medical care. Sometimes they just want to wait around for an opportunity to do a nappy change, have some contact with their baby, or mum might need to express. Having visitors can often complicate things. Let them know you’re around if they need you but reassure them it’s on their terms. Maybe you could offer to help with childcare of siblings or with lifts to and from the hospital instead.


It can be tempting to text or ring parents for an update every day or even several times a day. We know it’s because you care, and maybe are anxious about the baby. Sometimes parents literally don’t have the time to reply, they might not have a signal or they might not feel up to communicating with anyone outside their neonatal bubble. Some days there will be nothing to update on, or parents might be having their own bad day. Please don’t be offended – it’s nothing personal. It’s just hard to focus on anything other than their baby. Just let them know you’re thinking of them and give them some time.

Home after NICU

We know as friends and family you are excited about the baby coming home from hospital. We understand you’re desperate to see them all as a family and maybe get a sneaky cuddle with the baby. Please understand being discharged from neonatal care is daunting. Parents will need time to get into a routine with their baby. They will need to spend quality time as a family, and possibly reflect on the journey they have been through. They may be terrified of their baby picking up any bugs or infections and might want visitors to stay away for a while, especially if their baby has any complex issues or still requires some breathing support.

Visiting after NICU

If you do visit please be mindful parents may set some ground rules, and even if you think they are crazy ground rules, we don’t really need you to point that out or protest. If they want you to wash and sanitize you’re hands when you enter their home, please do so. If they ask you to remove your coat at the door or turn you away because you have a sniffle, please respect that. They are just trying to keep their baby safe and chances are this is advice passed on by health care professionals too. Don’t turn up unannounced. Having a new baby is exhausting and parents may want to catch up on sleep. They may also have health professionals visiting so it might not be a good time for other visitors. There will be plenty of time for cups of tea and cuddles, when parents feel ready.

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