What to Say & Do If Your Friend’s Baby has Special Needs
By Jennifer Graf Groneberg author of Road Map to Holland
“I only hope it’s healthy.” It’s the universal prayer of parenthood, right? Everyone wants a healthy baby. But sometimes babies are born with challenges, and it’s hard to know what to do or say. I understand, because it happened to me. My twins were preemies, and while we were in the NICU, my son Avery, older than his twin Bennett by two minutes, was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
What did I need? What did I want to hear? I didn’t have the answers, in the beginning. Here’s what I learned from experience:
1. It’s okay not to know what to say
We don’t know, either. We’re most likely working through a staggering range of emotions—all the usual postpartum ones, plus sometimes grief, fear, doubt. We might be in denial, or feel overwhelmed. It’s best to avoid all the platitudes—the “God only gives these babies to special parents” sort of sentiments. Instead, say what’s in your heart. The very best thing I heard was, simply, “I love you.”
2. Actions speak louder than words
If you say, “What can I do?” we might not have a ready answer. Instead, pick something specific and go for it. Plan to drive us to the hospital, or, if the baby is home, bring diapers and wipes. Help with the laundry. Clean the house. Walk the dog. It doesn’t matter what you do: your actions will show us that you’re “with” us, and that you support our new family.
3. Ask questions
Your willingness to talk about our baby’s medical issues will mean a lot; we might need a sounding board to help sort out our options, and our feelings about them. But don’t press—if we don’t have the answers, or we aren’t ready to talk yet, leave it at, “I’m here if you need me.”
4. Check in, every now and then
Life with a medically fragile child, or a child with severe issues, takes on its own dimensions. Time passes slowly and quickly at once. We sometimes lose track of things; forget to return calls, or emails. Gentle, consistent support is helpful. It lets us know we’re still important to you, even after the rush of initial attention has passed.
5. Our baby is still the love of our life
It seems like a simple thing, really, but it’s true: even with all the added emotions, we are still new mothers. We need all the things new mothers need—more sleep, a hot shower, a new pair of shoes. A good book and the time to read it. An excellent meal, uninterrupted. And this: Just as our bodies grew and expanded to accommodate our baby, now, our spirits are in transition. We are growing, and changing, and becoming, and what we need most is your understanding.