Having a premature baby raises so many questions for parents. How long will the baby be in the hospital? What can we do to be involved in his/her care? What does my baby’s diagnosis mean, and what’s ahead? And unfortunately, for some parents: Where am I going to sleep tonight? The unpredictability of premature birth means that sometimes newborns need to be cared for in a NICU far from the family’s home. Whether labor starts unexpectedly on an out-of-town trip, or a family’s local hospital doesn’t have the capacity to treat the baby’s condition, some parents face the additional challenge of finding and paying for a place to stay. Here’s a look at some of the options parents have and how the rest of us can help support families in this difficult situation.

For parents: the first place to ask for information is your hospital’s social worker. She or he should be able to direct you to services in your area. As older NICUs are being renovated and new ones are built, some hospitals are incorporating spaces for families into new floor plans. Private rooms are becoming more common, sometimes with pull-out couches to give parents a place to stay right in their baby’s room. If that’s not an option, here are some of the independent organizations that provide places for families to stay.

Ronald McDonald House Charities is the largest nation-wide organization that offers housing to families with hospitalized children. There is at least one Ronald McDonald House in every state, and many more around the world. They offer a place to stay and home-cooked meals to families, regardless of their ability to pay, and are supported by volunteers, individual and corporate donations, and family contributions.

Some hospitals that provide specialized care have affiliated hospitality houses that offer lodging to out-of-town families at low or no cost. Believe In Tomorrow Children’s House at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Hubbard House and Perry Pavilion at Orlando Health, and Bannister Family House at UC San Diego Health are a few examples. The Healthcare Hospitality Network is an umbrella organization of hospitality homes and is a good resource for more information.

Hospitality Homes is a unique non-profit organization in the Boston area that pairs out-of-town families with volunteer hosts who offer a place to stay in their homes free of charge. Not only do families have a place to sleep without the stress of finding a way to pay for lodging in an expensive city, they also often make lasting connections with the generous volunteers who host them.

These, and similar organizations across the country, provide a much-needed service for families with hospitalized children. But there are often waiting lists, and even a minimal family donation can add up over an extended hospital stay. Supporting hospitality houses like these is an important way the rest of us can help care for premature babies and their families. For anyone who would like to help families with children in out-of-town hospitals, all of these organizations gratefully accept monetary and material donations, and often volunteers. Getting involved with a hospitality home in your area is a wonderful way to make a real difference for families with preemies.

Of course, a baby's hospitalization an hour or two from home also presents difficulties for parents, even if they are close enough to sleep at home. We'll talk about some of the help available for preemie parents in that situation in a couple of weeks. We'd love your input; if you'd like to share your experience, or let us know about an organization not listed here, we'd love to hear about it!