But there's also a "practical" aspect to the stay. And that's something with which you can help. Even if the baby wasn't born early, a two or three night stay turning into several weeks is still a big change to any plans.
So, what can you do to help out your friend(s) who are unexpectedly in the NICU? Here are some things friends did for us (and a few things no one thought to do) to make our stay a little easier.
1. Congratulations cards
Even though this is a tough time, there's still a beautiful new baby! Some hospitals even offer free eCards you can order online which the staff will then print and deliver to the hospital room.
Story books to read to the baby, and a book or two for the parents. I recommend lighthearted books with short stories.
Grown-up socks that can be worn, then thrown away. Your friends have basically moved into a place with very dirty floors.
4. Laundry detergent
If you can stay, an offer to do the laundry would be nice, too.
Toothbrushes, toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, a bath puff, a washcloth, a fluffy towel. Some people will already have taken these to the hospital, but those travel sized bottles only last so long.
6. Tiny clothes
If the baby was born very small, one or two outfits to wear in the hospital or on the way home are nice. Most baby clothing stores sell "preemie" sizes.
You don't need to start a fundraiser. Just some dollar bills and quarters for the vending machines and/or parking fees are very useful.
Things that don't need to be refrigerated or heated are a plus. If it needs to be eaten with a utensil, include disposable utensil(s.)
9. A home cooked meal
Food may or may not be permitted in the room, so make sure the recipient gets a chance to eat it too, if you can.
10. A babysitter
Sort of. Offer to sit in the room with the baby while another visitor takes the mom and/or dad out for a walk or to eat—even if it's just around the hospital. (Or let Mom & Dad go together.) Sure, there are nurses. But it's heart wrenching to leave your baby with strangers--even good, trained, capable strangers.
Also offer the family “house help.” If parents are putting in time at the hospital, there may be older children who need a babysitter or rides, plants to be watered, grass to be mowed, pets to be fed and walked, mail and newspapers to be retrieved, etc.
In your cards and your words, be sure to mention the baby is sweet. Don't just focus on what's wrong. (And try not to use "it could be worse" as a comfort. It's a go-to thing to say, but it's really not comforting.)
Don't be a backseat driver. Offer advice if it's solicited, but don't judge or scold choices being made, and don't criticize how your friends are handling the hospital stay.
Visit. Hug your friends. Take pictures. Tell them happy things and quietly laugh together. Even if the hospital is far, or hard to get to, or has difficult and/or expensive parking—Visit. (Unless, of course, they sincerely ask you not to visit.)
Remember--your friends aren't happy to be there. And they probably don't want to think about their new baby possibly being in the hospital for a long time. They aren't a special breed of “parents of a sick baby” who have gained infinite wisdom or magically been granted superhuman strength. They are just people—people who probably thought they would be bringing home a healthy baby, but suddenly found themselves in this awful situation instead.