Premature birth presents unexpected challenges for everyone in the family, grandparents included. Seeing the baby whisked away to Neonatal Intensive Care, not knowing when everyone will be together at home, wanting to help but not knowing how: these are not the experiences grandparents envision leading up to the birth of a baby. And as difficult a time as this can be for families, grandparents have a very special opportunity to ease the burden on their children and help in important ways. Here are some ideas:

Ask the baby’s parents what they need. Having an honest conversation with the parents about what they are struggling with, what is causing them additional stress, and what needs are going unmet is a great place to start. Everyone reacts differently to the experience of premature birth, and giving parents the chance to honestly express how they’re feeling and what they need will form a foundation of understanding that everyone can work from.

Find ways to relieve parents of other responsibilities. Everyday tasks like grocery shopping, doing laundry, and mowing the lawn are hard enough to keep up with for parents of any newborn. When a baby is born early, they become even more difficult to manage. By helping to keep up with chores like these, you can offer a sliver of normalcy to your children that they will likely find comforting. Ask what task has been pushed to the back burner that they would like taken care of, and do it for them.

Offer care for older children.  When Sue, who started and runs Jacqui’s Preemie Pride, gave birth, she had an 18 month old son at home. She says that one of the hardest things was worrying about Justin, as well newborn Jacqui, and not being able to be there for both of them. Her sister helped take care of Justin while Sue and Jacqui were both in the hospital. “It was such a comfort to know that Justin was being cared for by someone who loved him,” Sue says. Depending on what the children’s parents need, you can offer regular babysitting, school pick-up and drop-off, or an occasional visit to allow the parents to spend time together. Having a loving grandparent around can also help older siblings sort through the complicated feelings that may arise from seeing a new brother or sister in the hospital.

Be another loving presence for the baby. Every parent is different, and while some moms and dads may want, and be able, to stay by the baby's side 24/7, having another family member available to talk and sing to the baby, and convey information from the hospital staff, can be helpful to many parents. Again, ask what they need. If they could use a break from the NICU for an hour or two, having another family member with the baby may help mom or dad feel better about their time away.

Remember to take care of yourself. Helping is great, but it can be draining. Taking the time to acknowledge your feelings is important. Whether it is your daughter or daughter-in-law, your grandchild's mother has had a crisis. Not only are you worried about your grandchild, you are concerned about their mother, father and siblings. Create a support system for yourself too. Ask the hospital for information on available resources such as a session with a social worker. Prematurity affects the whole family, including you.

Thanks to Sue for her perspective on this, as a former preemie mom and now a grandmother! If you'd like to share a story of family support in the NICU, or have some advice for grandparents, leave a comment. As always, we'd love to hear from you.