Posted: Dec 02, 2013 10:00 AM
The stress of having a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit can be taxing on any family, but the holidays with a sick baby can bring about feelings of depression and hopelessness. Make the most of your holiday celebration in the NICU with your little one.

A different kind of holiday

Christmas treeMany parents have a fantasy about Baby's first Christmas. But no one expects to have to spend their first holiday with their new baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. Instead of celebrating a wonderful occasion, many NICU parents find themselves fighting feelings of depression, loneliness and anxiety during what is already a stressful time for most.

Kelli Kelley is the founder of Hand to Hold, a peer-to-peer support organization that matches current and recent NICU parents to trained volunteers who have also had NICU experience. A mom to two NICU graduates herself, Kelley recalls her first Christmas season with her son Jackson, a 24-week micropreemie. Although Jackson was discharged before Thanksgiving, his fragile state meant that the Kelleys celebrated their holidays alone that year, not wanting to expose him to possible illness. "It was difficult because I wanted to share Jackson with our entire family and I missed my parents desperately," says Kelley, "but when I look back on our first Christmas Eve with our baby, I have nothing but happy memories."

Holidays, NICU style

Your baby may be in the NICU, but that doesn't mean you can't celebrate! Here are a few suggestions to help make your season a little brighter while you're there.

Have a small celebration^ Bring in some close family members and open some of your baby's gifts by their bedside. Don't forget to adhere to NICU policy. If the number of visitors is restricted to two or three at a time, gather everyone in the family waiting area and take turns visiting your baby.

Make it festive^Decorate your baby's bedside and area as much as the NICU will allow. Add some garland, tinsel and soft ornaments for a little Christmas cheer that you can see each time you visit.

Make holiday memories^Try to celebrate as you would at home. Dress your baby in a special holiday outfit and sing her soft carols. Use modeling clay and make imprints of her tiny hands and feet for a commemorative ornament. And don't forget to take lots and lots of photos.

Don't forget siblings^Having a baby in the NICU can be hard on siblings too. Work in time to take them on fun holiday outings when you're not in the NICU, and give them an opportunity to choose a gift for their baby brother or sister. Remind them that this year things are a little different, but try to make their holiday home life as normal as possible.

Celebrate the staff^Kelley reminds us of the blessings that can be found in even our darkest hours. "Instead of focusing inwardly, maybe allow the holiday season to remind us how blessed we are to have such amazing NICU staff and to recognize their dedication and time away from their families to care for our own."

Reach out for support

Thanks to technology, parents can stay connected to friends and family through Facebook, Skype or Facetime if the baby is still in the NICU or is a recent NICU graduate.

If Kelley could tell a NICU parent one thing this holiday season, she would remind them that they are not alone. The NICU can be isolating and lonely any time of year, but that feeling can be magnified over the holidays, when life is continuing all around, yet seems to be standing still in the NICU. Reach out to friends and family for support and share your feelings. Online support groups and peer-to-peer support organizations like Hand to Hold can greatly reduce depression, anxiety and stress. Thanks to technology, parents can stay connected to friends and family through Facebook, Skype or Facetime if the baby is still in the NICU or is a recent NICU graduate.

Kelley encourages current NICU parents to find joy no matter where they are, and allow the season to remind us how truly blessed we are. When you look back on your baby's first Christmas, you want to be able to see all of the joy and love that you felt. And seeing how far your baby has come will be the real reason to celebrate.

More on parenting in the NICU

6 Books for preemie parents
Our journey through prematurity
Parenting in the NICU