A friend of mine had a beautiful baby girl yesterday.  10 fingers. 10 toes. Already beyond loved. She was 8 weeks early and will spend at least the next four weeks in the NICU.

I am overjoyed at the news of this new little one’s arrival  — and also stifling back PTSD convulsions.

Our NICU days are far behind us. Two months behind us. If you’ve never had a child in intensive care, the idea is tough to comprehend no matter how empathetic you try to be. If you have, you probably have a bathroom cabinet full of dark eye circle  treatment lotions and the high pitched beep of a trash truck backing up make you involuntarily twitch.

I remember feeling rather steely right after the little guy was born. In overdrive, a “do whatever you have to do” mode to keep things — and people — floating. It’s a bit like treading water in the ocean. You’re fine one minute, keeping pace and then a big wave sneaks up and knocks you cold.  You roll. Then you bob back up again.  Continue treading.

It’s hard to know the right thing to say or do when you have a friend or family member whose brand new baby isn’t going home with them once they are discharged from their postpartum room. But here are some things that helped us — and hopefully the advice is helpful to you, too.

13 ways to help a friend survive the nicu

Don’t say I’m sorry. There is absolutely nothing to be sorry about. If you say “I’m sorry” the parents are going to be compelled to say “thank you, it’s ok.” It’s not really going to be ok for a while. BUT there is a brand new, gorgeous little baby. This new little life is to be celebrated. Send the parents a bottle of champagne to toast the newest addition to their family. Might help their nerves a bit, too.

Send a funny card. We received a lot of care and concern cards. We appreciated them, the notes and the sentiments. It was so nice to know that others were thinking about us. One day life got a little bit overwhelming and I put all the care and concern cards in a drawer to be opened by the Little Guy when he graduates high school. I really couldn’t look at them anymore. But the funny cards? Those are the ones I treasure. The ones that I stuck on the fridge, bulletin boards and even my purse. Laughter is by far the best medicine.

Forget the casserole. If your friend has a baby in the NICU, they aren’t going to be home much. Period. A freezer full of rotting lasagna might actually make their stress worse. Once they get home from the NICU? Totally different story. THAT’S when that calendar of dinner drop-offs would be amazingly helpful. Especially during that first transitional month and DEFINITELY if they have to come home with medical equipment and home care nursing. But you may want to consider making something other than lasagna… just saying…

Do send fresh fruit and coffee. Know the worst thing about hospitals? The food. What’s easily ‘grabable’ is usually fried, fatty or full of sugar. If you do manage to find a fruit cup, it’s  usually been doused in some sort of preservative to keep them ‘fresh’ which makes them taste a bit like penicillin. I was not-so-secretly giddy  the days my friends would swing by to visit, a small Whole Foods bag full of fresh, ready-to-eat fruit in tow. And a venti soy latte.

Visit. Yes, go SEE your friend. You may not get to go into the room and see the baby, but chances are your friend  is shacking up in a dark room full or monitors and incessant beeping sounds. Give them a reason to leave for 30 minutes and catch up with the ‘real world.’ This becomes even more important if the baby’s stay in the NICU extends past a month. That’s right about when stockholm syndrome sets in…

Leave a message, knowing that you probably won’t get a call back. I often heard from friends and family that they wanted to call but didn’t know what time would be good. Bottom line? No time is consistently good. Things change every hour in the NICU environment.  But I loved checking my phone at 12 am and hearing friendly voices that weren’t talking about laryngealmalacia. Oftentimes I couldn’t call back. I love that my good friends kept calling, leaving “I’m thinking about you” messages, and texting anyway.

Don’t ask “what would you like to eat?” I didn’t really crave food when the Lion Man was in the hospital. I ate whatever someone put in front of me. If no one put food in front of me, chances are I didn’t eat. In additional to caring for their new little one, NICU parents are trying to learn a brand new medical language and are asked to consent and understand things that were completely foreign to them the day before. Food decisions are kind of overwhelming. Give them a concrete choice (“soup or sandwich today?“) and swing by with something healthy.

Smile at the nurses. If you do get a chance to see the baby, be nice to the nurses. They are your friend’s first line of defense and best offense. They need them on their team.  I’m not saying ‘suck up’ to them (ok I am), but the truth is I saw far too many good NICU nurses mistreated by extended family and friends of other patients. It’s a high stress environment. Emotions run raw.  But everything will go smoother if everyone keeps their cool. Become friends with the nurses… makes it even better. Want triple bonus points? Bring everyone chocolate. {And you think I’m kidding…}

Ask “how are you?” Be prepared to be lied to or cried on. You are probably going to hear “I’m fine.” Ask anyway. It might be the day your friend needs to unload. If it’s not, it might be the day s/he needs to keep saying I’m fine.  Little engine that could mentality is incredibly powerful. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

Drop off lip gloss and a great yoga-inspired outfit.  I’ve seen a lot of NICU moms wander aimlessly in pajamas and half-tossed hair. It’s tough to feel empowered if you look and feel rotten and post-partum is a particularly rough time. She might not be able to squeeze into her pre-pregnancy clothes yet, but she can — and should — rock some new comfortable threads. After all, she did just have a baby. You’d be amazed what you can tackle if you feel like a member of the human race. Don’t need full make-up. Just a little gloss. RELATED: She may burn the yoga clothes once the baby is home and on the mend. That’s ok, too. They did their job.

Buy parking passes or a gift card. People often asked what we needed. Truth was not much in terms of material things while the little guy was in ICU. But parking and all of those afternoon cups of coffee from the hospital cafe started adding up.  Gift cards were immensely helpful.

Snaps. No zips. NICU babies wear clothes. Really, they do! But it’s much easier on parents and nurses if the clothes snap up the front and don’t have to go over the head. Can’t get wires and monitoring cords through a zipper. So if you’re planning to get the new little bundle of joy a fabulous outfit, look for snaps. Save the adorably soft teddy bear for when he or she comes home. Many NICUs won’t allow plush stuffed animals.

Be honest and open. Share what’s going on in your life. I heard a lot of people say “Oh, well, things are stressful right now but it’s NOTHING compared to what you’re going through.” Not true. My stress is/was different. But I was still 100% interested in knowing what’s going on in their life and supporting them through what’s going on, too. The friendship thing? Only works if it goes both ways. Plus, a friend’s story about a botched blind date? A much needed break from worrying about how many grams the baby lost or gained overnight…

Been a NICU parent? Been a NICU parent’s friend? What other tips would you add to this list?