I follow a variety of preemie message boads on the net, and it seems like there isn’t a day that goes by where someone isn’t asking a question or venting about a topic related to difficult family members. In a time when you’re under tremendous stress, sometimes the added burden of conflict with extended family or friends is more than a parent can handle.

If you’re battling with family members while your baby is in the NICU, I hope you realize that you’re not alone. The stress of a preterm birth can strain even the strongest relationships, not to mention what it can do to an already tense relationship with your mother-in law.

Here are a few common problems that come up with family in friends when a baby is in the NICU, and some suggestions on how to cope with them.

  1. They place blame on you for your baby’s early arrival. I’ve most commonly seen this situation between women and mother-in-laws that already have a difficult relationship to begin with. First off, you can rest assured that in many, if not most, cases, there is nothing you could have done differently. If a person is mean spiritied and likes to pick fights and place blame, there is probably nothing you can do to change their mind (unless there is some way you can convince yor MIL that her beloved son is somehow to blame). If you have your own worries that you could have done something differently, discuss them with your docotr, and choose to believe them when they reassure you that it wasn’t your fault.
  2. They think you’re being overprotective. Many times, people get upset and frustrated by rules and policies that prevent them from visiting your baby or doing things that they would normally be able to do with a newborn. Instead of just accepting the fact that rules are rules, they choose to blame you for being overly cautious or trying to keep them out of your baby’s life. If your NICU has a written policy about visiting, the best weapon in this situation would probably be to give family and friends this information in writing. Head off conflicts by sending the information to anyone who might want to visit, before it becomes an issue. If they persist, let them come and get turned away by the NICU staff, making them the enemy instead of yourself.
  3. They interfere with your decision making. Your family probably wants the best for your baby as much as you do, but they can really make your life more difficult if they insist on inserting themselves into any difficult decisions you need to make while your baby is in the NICU. Tell them that while you appreciate their desire to help, your decisions are private, and unless you ask for their help or input, you’d prefer not to hear it.
  4. They act like your baby doesn’t exist. Whether its because they’re afraid your baby is going to die and they don’t want to get attached, or simply that your sister’s kids are more fun and convenient to visit, it can really hurt when family isn’t around when you need them. Despite the difficult situation, this is your baby, and when the time is appropriate, you would like your family to fawn over them just as much as any other new baby. This can especially hurtful if they tend to change the subject when you start talking about your baby, or launch directly into complaining about how bad your brother has it because his kid has an ear infection again. If this is happening to you, call a friend or other family member who really does care, and fill them in on your baby’s progress or challenges. It will make you feel so much better.
  5. They make everything about themselves. Some people have a habit of turning every problem into their very own pity party. They seem to ignore your obviously bigger problems, in order to complain about how unfair it is that they haven’t been able to hold their new grandbaby/niece/etc like somebody else. In these cases, it’s probably best to put a little distance between you, and get off the phone when they start going off on another “woe is me” moment.

Life in the NICU is a challenge, and the last thing you need is for the people around you to make it more difficult. So, if you’re having a hard time, reach out to a friend or another NICU parent who understands what you’re going through.

The information in this article is for educational purposes only. It is not meant to replace or supersede advice from your doctor. If you have concerns about your child’s health or well being, consult their doctor right away.

Authored by Kristie McNealy MD, founder of NICU 101. For reprint permission, or to publish on your site, contact Kristie.