Helping Siblings Cope with the NICU

Helping siblings cope with the NICUWhen one child is hospitalized, it can affect the entire family. A patient’s siblings can feel confused, jealous, angry, or even guilty over the hospitalization of their brother or sister, especially when it’s a new baby.

Toddlers and preschoolers can have an especially hard time coping with mom and dad being away. To cope with this jealousy, try to keep their daily routine as normal as possible. Spending one-on-one time with the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) baby’s older sibling is important for maintaining a sense of normalcy. Even brief amounts of regular time can help maintain a sense of fun and family.

No matter their age, it’s important to remind siblings that it’s not their fault that new baby is in the NICU. Sometimes little minds can run wild, and it’s essential to remind them that they did nothing wrong to cause their brother or sister to stay in the NICU.

Parents can address some of siblings’ most common questions about the NICU:

  • “Why is the baby so small?”
    • Babies stay in their mommy’s tummy for nine months so they can grow and get ready to come out. But some babies come too soon and don’t have enough time to grow inside mommy’s tummy. They are very tiny because they came too fast.
  • “Why is my baby in a box?”
    • Educate little ones that incubators are special beds for small babies to keep them safe.
  • “What are all these machines?”
    • Tubes help get the food right to the baby’s tummy so they don’t have to do any work.
    • The baby is small and needs to rest, so tubes help the baby take deep breaths without having to do any work.
    • These machines are helping the baby.

Giving a “job” to siblings can also help them cope and make them feel like they are contributing to the baby’s care. When they’re at home, siblings can make a card or draw a picture that mom or dad can bring to the NICU. Remind siblings that the new baby knows their brother or sister’s voice, so reading or singing quietly to the baby can let them know they are there. Sibling education classes can teach big brothers and sisters how to help mom and dad change a diaper, or feed a bottle to their new baby brother or sister.

Siblings are able to participate in special activities organized by CHOC Children’s child life specialists. Volunteers are on-call to play with siblings or escort them to organized activities when mom or dad needs to be alone with the NICU baby. For more information about other ways CHOC Child Life can help families navigate their experience in the NICU, call 714-509-8473.

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