September 14, 2020

How to support a family with a baby in the NICU


Extra support from family and friends goes a long way when a newborn is seriously ill.

When I first began working as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, I was overwhelmed with the machines, the noises and the constant activity. I had four children of my own and I had never experienced an ICU of any type. I was terrified.

But what gradually eased my fears and allowed me to learn to relax was the sight of a baby. Babies were the reason I wanted to be a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse. Since I was a young girl, I had envisioned myself caring for sick babies. A special nurse taught me something that I used for years as I introduced distraught parents to their newborn. She taught me to understand that no matter what the baby’s problems were or how many problems the baby had, the parents were welcoming a new joy into their lives. They imagined and dreamed of this momentous occasion for so long. My role was congratulating the new parents on the birth of their baby.


No matter what, they deserved and needed to hear congratulations first, before I did anything else.

That became my practice.

I have discovered over the decades of being a NICU nurse that there’s always something positive to bring to their attention, despite the whooshes and beeps of monitors. “I think her hair is almost just your same color.”  Or, “Wow, look at his beautiful hands. His fingers are long and slender; I wonder if that will be for piano playing or throwing a football one day?”

Even more important than recognizing the beauty of the baby’s hair or hands, is to simply ask, “Have you chosen a name yet?”

Those crib cards over a bassinet haven’t changed much over the years. Most still have a place for Baby Boy or Baby Girl ________, a place for the birth weight and the pediatrician’s name.

And, unless we pay close attention, that baby will be referred to as Baby Smith or Baby Jones until someone asks the simple question and the baby’s name is then handwritten in the space. Then the baby becomes a person: a tiny person, but a person to be loved and called by name.

So whether you’re a nurse, a caregiver or a friend, remember these helpful acts can provide support for parents of a baby in the NICU:

1. No matter the diagnosis or the prognosis, congratulate the parents.

2. Notice all the beautiful things about the baby and comment on them.

3. Call the baby by his or her name.

4. The family will need help and attention for many weeks to come; NICU hospitalizations can be long. You can help with many things. Some ideas:

  • Sending meals to their home.
  • Babysitting other children so mom and dad can visit.
  • Taking care of the family’s pets.
  • Bringing bags of snacks for the waiting rooms.
  • Giving a bag of coins for the vending machines, or generic gift cards so that families can pay for quick meals.
  • Showers of greeting cards are always welcome.

That extra touch from family and friends is a treasure.

Marlee Crankshaw has worked in nursing for more than 30 years at Vanderbilt. A mother and a grandmother, Crankshaw serves as the Administrative Director for Neonatal Services for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, which includes both Newborn Nursery and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. 

In honor of NICU awareness month, we are speaking with Marlee Crankshaw about how to support a family in the NICU. If you have had a child in the NICU, chime in with your advice. For more ideas, visit

Posted by Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt on Friday, September 6, 2019