The Kyte Baby controversy highlights the drastic need for paid leave for NICU parents

Kyte Baby controversy

The NICU is a harrowing place for families—one they often remember forever. Some are lucky enough to leave with their babies, be it after a few days or many months battling health issues, while others aren’t. It’s a place that many parents don’t leave unscathed either, sometimes working through trauma, mixed with the emotions of immense gratitude for a place that kept their baby alive.

The statistics reflect a trying time: 39 to 45% of mothers with infants in the NICU have postpartum depression, as compared to 10-15% of the general population, and 43% develop severe anxiety. At least a year later, 20% have symptoms of PTSD. Yet, this week, baby sleep gear company Kyte Baby became the center of controversy for failing to support a mother through her family’s NICU experience.

Marissa Hughes, a former employee at Kyte Baby, struggled to conceive, and finally got the call that they were able to adopt a baby who weighed just one pound at birth and was in the NICU nine hours away from their home in Dallas. To accommodate the rigors of NICU life as a new parent, Hughes requested from her company that, after her brief, two-week maternity leave came to an end, she work remotely for a temporary period. CEO Ying Liu came under fire for not only denying the request, but for firing Hughes when she was unable to adhere to the company leave policy of returning to work on time.

According to Hughes’ sister, the company let Hughes know she would be giving up her job if she stayed at the hospital. Since she had been working for Kyte Baby for under a year, Hughes couldn’t pursue FMLA, her sister added in a TikTok video.

In response to the publicity, Liu released multiple apologies—first a scripted one, followed by an “off-script” confessional video. “I was insensitive, selfish, and only focused on the fact that her job had always been done on-site,” Ying says. Parents in the comments weren’t having it, especially because Ying called the child her “adopted baby” instead of her “baby.” She also offers her job back (remotely, now, of course). The entire situation speaks to a battle NICU parents are fighting around the country.

Jodi Klaristenfeld, Founder of FLRRiSH, was a preemie parent herself and now coaches other NICU parents in her business. NICU visits aren’t as rare as you might think — 9 to 13% of babies spend some time in the NICU, which means NICU policies (or lack thereof) would impact around 1 in 10 parents.

“Should the mom take leave right after birth to be with her baby during those crucial hours, days, and weeks when kangaroo care is of utmost importance to both the baby’s growth and development and to the mom’s sense of bonding with the child? Or should a mom take leave after her child is home from the NICU so she can be with her child all day everyday doing what typical moms do on their maternity leave — despite their leave being very atypical with appointments, follow-ups and isolation?”  They should not have to choose, Klaristenfeld tells Motherly.

“Everyone can learn something from what has transpired here.  This is not just about bending a company policy on maternity leave. But rather it is about a greater understanding of a work-life balance.  The mother was not asking for time off, she simply was asking to work in a place that was most important to her at this moment,” Klaristenfeld says. “She was not being unreasonable or difficult.  All she was asking for was support at a time she needed it the most from a company who directly serves the demographic of their customer.”

NICU moms still need actual time off, though, as the experience can be draining, taxing, and exhausting. Some mothers are also trying to pump and breastfeed, which in itself can feel like a full time job, especially while healing from childbirth, in some cases. It points to the need for specific leave policies, in addition to maternity leave policies, for NICU families to be able to support their families in the most trying time.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel, Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners, tells Motherly this was a situation in which leaders were moving too fast and didn’t even bother to understand the situation.

“By institutionalizing everything like the work-from-home policy, and not making case-by-case decisions, people are treated like cogs in the wheel—they’re just numbers. And that’s the thing people are outraged about. They have a process that isn’t about people, which creates an experience that leads people to believe they are not cared about.”

The UK recently passed the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act 2023, which Harvard Law calls a “significant step forward in labor law rights for those whose infants require a hospital stay), though it’s not expected to come into effect until 2025. It gives 12 weeks of NICU care leave, and pay for qualifying parents, and protection that your job is secure. But, there are still issues, such as the inability to meet the minimum service requirements in some situations, or NICU stays that need to be longer than 12 weeks.

Sarah Hardy, Co-Founder and COO of Bobbie, an infant formula company, was in a similar situation with her employee who had to deliver at 27 weeks. But, she handled it quite differently from Ying. “It was immediately clear to me what we’d do: Meet her in her reality and implement a policy that would support her,” she wrote in a Forbes piece in June 2023.

“To even imagine any employee spending their paid leave driving back and forth from the NICU every day is unconscionable to me. Even worse is the notion of returning to work during this time to “save” their paid leave for once their baby is discharged from the NICU. As I imagined those realities for this employee, I knew one thing for sure: She needed to be at the NICU every day with her baby and still have time to adjust to life at home down the road,” she wrote. But, not all workers have close to this level of understanding from their bosses, and FMLA, as Hughes found in her situation, isn’t always enough, or helpful.

So, as Hardy said in her article, it’s time for bosses leading company culture and policy to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. “Expanding parental leave to include time to care for a child in the NICU is a good place for companies to start.”

You can donate to the Hughes and her son’s NICU care through a GoFundMe that has been set up for the family.