Sibling Visits to Your Baby in the NICU

Having a sibling in the NICU is a difficult time for any child. Advice for older brothers and sisters visiting babies in the NICU.

By Kristie McNealy

The issue of siblings in the NICU is very important to me, because when our 31 weeker was born, she had an older sister who had just turned three. In fact, we had celebrated her third birthday while I was in the hospital on bed rest. The NICU rollercoaster was very emotional for her, even at such a young age. A baby sister was an abstract enough idea before she was born, but when she arrived and was taken away someplace where Riley couldn’t see her, things became more difficult.

I remember the first time Riley came to visit me in the hospital after her sister was born. Her dad had explained what had happened, but without a baby to touch and look at, she was clearly skeptical. She crawled into my hospital bed and pulled down my blankets to examine my belly. She asked questions abut where her sister had gone and how she had come out. We explained a little bit about my c-section, saying that the doctors had taken her out through my belly because she had been sick. After carefully examining my bandages, she felt confident that someone had indeed taken her baby sister out, but where she was now was a whole different story.

Camden had arrived during RSV season, and our NICU didn’t allow siblings to visit unless they were over 12 and had passed a health screening. Riley was only three, so a visit was out of the question. Instead, we took lots of pictures which Riley liked to look at over and over. While she gradually got used to the fact that her sister existed, explaining why she couldn’t visit was a whole different story.

When photos were no longer enough to satisfy her curiosity, we made a short video of Camden during one of her care times. Riley was suitably enthralled with the 5 minute video clip, and watched it dozens of times. Then, when Camden was well enough to be held, we were able to bring Riley to the lobby of the NICU to peek at Camden through the windows while one of us held her. While seeing her sister was definitely a positive experience, it brought on whole different lists of requests, like holding, feeding and kissing Camden. Often, when these requests couldn’t be granted, there were tears and meltdowns.

Having a sibling in the NICU is a difficult time for any child. A child of any age will be affected by the absence of parents while they spend time visiting their new baby in the NCU. They often feel scared, and sad that they can’t participate. After months of being primed for their new role as a big brother or sister, the new baby is taken away to an unfamiliar place, and the entire family is put under tremendous stress. Although they may not verbalize their feelings, your child may demonstrate their stress by acting out, throwing tantrums or regressing in newly acquired skills like potty training or sleeping through the night. Patience and one-on-one time can be key in overcoming these problems.

In order to facilitate bonding whether your child can visit or not, encourage them to draw pictures or make cards for the new bay. Help them pick out a family photo or a photo of themselves to decorate your baby’s isolette. Have them pick out a small stuffed animal, hat or outfit that help keep the baby warm and loved. Share pictures and videos, especially ones of the new baby and any treasured items your older child has picked out for them, and encourage your child to talk about the new baby and ask questions. If your child can’t visit the NICU, schedule play dates with friends while you are visiting the baby. Also be sure to schedule in some special mommy or daddy time to help them feel less left out and forgotten.

If your child is able to visit the NICU, prepare them for what they will see in the NICU by showing them pictures of the baby or by finding pictures online of other preemies. Explain what the NICU looks like, and the kinds of equipment they will see. Explain about IVs and other tubes and wires connected to the baby, and that they don’t hurt. Also double check hospital visitation policies with your nurse to find out if sibling visitation is limited to specific times or days. Find out if your NICU offers a support group or NICU orientation for siblings. If so, sign them up before you visit. Talk to them about what they will be able to do when they visit. Tell them if they will be able to hold or touch the baby, help with a feeding, or just watch and visit through the isolette. Depending on your child’s age, you may want to have your own “orientation” at home before you go to the NICU. Pick a doll similar in size to your new baby, and ask a nurse in the NICU if you can have a preemie diaper, a preemie bottle/nipple or maybe even your baby’s old EKG or monitor leads if you’re around when they are changed. Use these items to teach your other child about their baby brother or sister.

When your child is able to visit the NICU, schedule short visits at first. Bring a quiet book or activity to entertain younger children while they are at the bedside. You can even spend some time bonding with baby by reading a book to both children. Pick a time to visit when the NICU is usually quite. Avoid change of shift or the times when rounds typically occur. Be patient, and be prepared to leave if your older child becomes overly upset, bored or overwhelmed.

When you finally bring your baby home, don’t expect siblings to adjust easily to the change. Issues with tantrums or regressions may continue for a while, just like they would when bringing a healthy baby home from the hospital. Also, be aware of anxiety created by the NICU experience. For many months after Camden came home, Riley was extremely protective of her, and she would become upset if we left the house with the baby because she was afraid we wouldn’t bring her back.