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It Takes a Village

How can you support a new parent after a traumatic birth?

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Photo illustration by Slate.

Read more from Slate’s Helping Others Heal package. Find out how to support loved ones in the wake of job loss, divorce, or the death of a friend or family member.

Our biology can be unfair, Part 1,876: Parents who give birth must start nurturing a tiny, precious human immediately after undergoing a physically challenging ordeal. Imagine climbing K-2, only to discover after reaching the peak that you will not be allowed to sleep for more than a few hours at a time for the next few months. (I may have shouted “You’ve got to be kidding me!! I’m so TIRED” a few times, that first night after my daughter was born, before reality truly sank in.)

But things get even more challenging when the birth results in a medical complication for the mother—an unexpected C-section, an injured tailbone, an infection—or your newborn lands in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit after delivery.

What should you, the friend or family member who’s hoping to be supportive, do to help your loved one during such a time? The best thing, if you live nearby, is volunteer your time to cover the household functions the parents usually perform. Freezer meals and organizing meal trains are classic choices in this department. But after a medically fraught birth, parents will appreciate friends and family that find even more ways to take non-baby-related domestic worries off their hands.

If the parents have an older child, volunteer to babysit. This works particularly well if you also have an older child or children, since you can extend an offer to include the family’s older sibling(s) whenever you’re going on a kid-centric outing. You could make a fun, stimulating plan, like going to a children’s museum or the movies or an indoor play space. But you don’t have to—in fact, it might be easier to take Older Sib(s) to an outdoor location, like a park or the woods, and let them leave some of their “my family’s going through something” feelings on the swings. If you’re very close to the family, you could offer to keep the older child overnight so the parents can stay at the hospital for a stretch.

An easy thing to do that’s a little less complex than child care, and will also be a boon to families camped out at the hospital, is to offer to walk a dog or check in on a cat. If you don’t live in town, you could look into dog-walking (or kenneling) or cat-sitting services where they live, and send a gift card to cover a few days. If you’re emotionally close enough for this not to feel weird, you could also offer to clean their house or mow their lawn yourself—or research house-cleaning or lawn-care services that operate where they live, and buy a gift certificate.

When it’s the baby who needs medical care after the birth, parents often rearrange their lives to be in the NICU are much as possible, and the incidental costs really start to add up. Especially if the parents live in a rural area and the hospital is hours away, car-related expenses can pile another anxiety on top of the baby-related stresses. If you have the means to remove some of that anxiety via cash, do it: Send money (or a gift card) to cover gas, tolls, and parking. Another NICU-specific idea is to find out whether there are restaurants or cafes near (or even inside) the hospital, and send gift cards for hot meals they can grab when they’re there.

Families with a baby in the NICU might appreciate you baking cookies or banana bread and bringing it in as a gift for the nurses on the unit, given in the family’s name. You could bring that kind of gift into the hospital when you know the parents are visiting, and stay to spend some time with your friend or relative, since having a baby in the NICU—especially when the stay is a longer one—can be lonely and isolating. If baking isn’t your thing, you could order (and deliver) coffee and bagels/sandwiches/donuts for the parents and nurses.

Families who are healing from a medically complicated birth may want (as the saying goes) your presence more than your presents. But what can you send if you want to show support to someone you’re less close to, or if you live across the country and want your friends to know you’re with them from afar? Here are a few ideas.

If the baby came earlier than expected, the parents may not have a supply of preemie diapers or clothes on hand. You could send either as a thoughtful gift, but be aware that NICUs do have requirements for the kinds of clothes babies can wear in their care because of all the medical equipment they use. The company Perfectly Preemie sells sets (bodysuits, booties, and hats) with cute patterns and the right kinds of snaps.

If your friend or relative is the type who likes to read and research their way through difficult life challenges, The Preemie Primer, a book about caring for premature babies written by OB/GYN Dr. Jennifer Gunter (who has both delivered and mothered kids born before 37 weeks) may be just the ticket.

The Preemie Primer

By Dr. Jennifer Gunter. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Add a nice tube of hand cream to your package if the baby is in the NICU, since the parent will be constantly washing (and drying out) their hands.

When the parent who gave birth is immobile—which they practically will be if they’re nursing, but even more so if they’re injured—they’ll want a supply of delicious snacks they can eat out of hand, no heating or cooling required. I made multiple orders from Nuts.com in the first weeks after my child’s birth as I was healing from my C-section; now, I send boxes from this company to faraway friends and relatives whenever I have the excuse. I loved the Angelino plums (iron! Good for postpartum parents), the sesame teriyaki almonds & cashews mix, and the peanut butter and jelly bitty bars.

Lactation makes you extremely thirsty. I found I relied heavily on the one bottle in my house that had a straw because I could use it with one hand. Screw-top, heavy-duty reusable aluminum water bottles are beautiful, but this may be a better time to indulge your friend in a cute tumbler with a straw, like this one from Kate Spade.

One final recommendation: Find out if your friend is able to read while nursing, baby-holding, or waiting at the NICU. If they are, consider sending a Kindle gift card. My postpartum mental life improved immensely when I stopped reading Twitter on the phone I clutched in my non-baby-holding hand and started reading books on my Kindle instead. To make the gift even more personal, add a note recommending some absorbing novels you’ve read recently—the escape will be much appreciated.