Holidays in the NICU

Celebrating the December holidays when you have a baby in the NICU can be a rollercoaster of emotions to say the least. On one hand, it’s baby’s first Christmas or Hanukkah, and that’s a blessing no matter where he or she is. But on the other hand, it can make you sad and maybe a little resentful to see social media posts of other families together at home in matching pajamas. It can spark pangs of guilt if you’re out enjoying a holiday party instead of hanging out at the hospital. It can add hours of time and stress to an already jam-packed season as you juggle hospital visits with shopping, cookies, and any other “normal” holiday running around you’re brave enough to attempt this year.

If you have older children, it can pull you in two as you try to make everything “fair” for them, too. It can even make you downright angry that you don’t get to send out the cards with the newborn photo shoot the way you wanted to. And when it comes to figuring out how you’re going to celebrate on the actual holiday itself…it’s a lot. And it’s heavy. All of these are OK things to feel — and you are not alone.

As you visit the NICU on Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, and each night of Hanukkah, you’ll be surrounded by a different, bigger family, many of whom have grown to love you and your baby as much as blood relatives — your NICU family. You’ll be joined by other parents who are on the exact same page and will probably give you the hugs and/or the space you need without asking. And together, you’ll find new and different ways to spend the holidays this year, doing the best you can (which is always plenty). Here are a few ideas to help celebrate and make the most of the season.

Identify a few family traditions that could be made portable (but check with staff first to make sure the festivities follow the rules). Maybe there’s a favorite food that you always enjoy together — bring it with you to the hospital. Softly play the album of carols that always acts as the backdrop Christmas morning. Take a photo of your tree or light display at home, and tape it to the crib or isolette. Hide the pickle ornament in a waiting room or NICU tree. Maybe you can open the contents of stockings as a family with a tiny one for baby. Battery-powered menorahs are fairly easy to find, and a dreidel can be spun anywhere. You can bet that other families and NICU nurses would appreciate some Hanukkah gelt.

Involve older kids in the planning. Remind them that Santa finds children wherever they are on Christmas morning, even in the NICU. Plant a gift or two near baby’s pod ahead of time to keep up the charade when your family arrives on Christmas Day. Maybe they can help read a holiday story to baby with you. Ask them to help come up with fun things you could do to celebrate; their thoughtful and creative contributions can keep them involved in a situation that can make them feel a little left out. Sometimes those ideas stick and become new family traditions that continue for years to come.

If you are a believer (or even a reformed one), ponder the miracle stories at the root of the winter holidays and how they apply to your story. The journey against the odds that Mary and Joseph took to deliver their baby Jesus, and the love that was showered on him by the angels and the wise men who came regularly to watch over him. How although the Maccabees thought they only had enough oil for one night, the fuel and the light lasted much, much longer than they expected. See if there are religious services available inside the hospital if you normally attend during the holiday.

Have frank conversations with family and friends ahead of time. Many will understand that you are spread thin these days, especially if they’ve been in close contact with you since baby’s birth. But others won’t fully grasp what you will and won’t be able to do as the holiday season approaches, and it’s best to just say so up front. It’s one of those times were the mass email and huge group message are totally acceptable. Explain that as frequent visitors to a NICU full of fragile tiny people, you may be avoiding sneezing crowds during flu season. Those crowds may include the annual caroling adventure, the big family party, and the office happy hour — even if they are cherished traditions for everyone (including you). You might not get the cards done, the calls returned, or the emails answered. If the cookie exchange is happening during NICU visiting hours and you’re back at work, you’re going to go see your little snickerdoodle instead. Letting everyone know the limits you’re setting for your own reality and sanity ahead of time can help prevent some of the guilt you might feel otherwise, and the hurt feelings by loved ones who might simply be kindly oblivious as to what you’re going through.

Savor the stillness. There is lemonade to be made of the lemons here. At any other point in life, the mostly quiet hours spent in a comfy chair crib-side as your baby sleeps — free from work, errands, wrapping, navigating the mall — would sound like heaven, right? Take the opportunity to meditate and breathe, maybe with the help of an app or podcast designed to help. Bring a mug of hot tea and your holiday cards to write and consider having them double as thank-you notes for all of the people who have surely brought a casserole, sent a gift, picked up the older children, or phoned without fail. FaceTime with an old friend or family member who lives far away, introduce them to your new one, and have the kind of good catch-up session that’s rarely possible at holiday get togethers.

The holidays will be different this year. And you will make the most of them, because you’ve already made it through much more than you thought you could. Best wishes for the brightest holiday possible for you and your family in the new year to come. For helpful resources especially for NICU parents, visit https://www.nicuawareness.org/nicu-resources.html.

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