This is probably not appropriate for this time of year, but the best thing someone could have done for us when our babies were in the NICU was mow our lawn. It was so far at the bottom of our priority list that by the time we got around to it, it was half-way to our knees. It looked awful and loomed over us, nagging at us that it desperately needed to be done. I used to wish that our neighbors would just mow it while they were doing their own, but they never did.
So, other than gift cards, which are a great idea, something practical like lawn-mowing or getting a housekeeper to do their house from top to bottom or a snowplow or something.
I didn't have a child in NICU, but I did have a dc in the PICU at 5 months for open heart surgery. Cooking meals that can be frozen for when the family comes home to quickly heat up is a great gift. They don't have to be fancy, but the last thing anyone wants to do after coming home from the hospital is figuring out what to make for dinner. Just another idea.
All the other suggestions sound good.
When my dd was in NICU, her "roomate's" mother gave me a beautiful gift. It was a pink bag filled all kinds of girlie things--pink booties, hair bands, little mittens. The mama spoke only Spanish and my husband is a native speaker. One night the mama called and wanted to know how her son was doing. They lived far away and this was before we'd met. Anyhow, none of the nurses spoke Spanish and we could hear them running around trying to get someone to speak Spanish to the mama. So my dh volunteered. The next time she came, I introduced myself in my terrible Spanish and explained who my husband was.(I figured it out because of the baby's name. She had to give my dh the baby's name in order for him to tell her how the baby was doing.) And she ended up bringing me the gift. It was so lovely.
It was so hard to see all the other mamas leaving the hospital with their balloons and flowers and baby gift bags. My friends weren't quite sure how to react to us and our dd. It was so nice to have this "normal" gift.
Thank you for the responses! This Mama is in NYC so luckily she does not have to mow her lawn! Food gift cards are not good either because there are no chain rest around the hospital. She has a housekeeper. I have heard in other areas that "normal" gifts are really nice since most people are probably avoiding buying things. I found somewhere that personalizes knit caps and booties. How does that sound?
The best gift we got while ds was in the NICU was a beautiful floral arrangement brought right in to me at his bed. I still cry when I think of it because in the midst of all the chaos we were still celebrating his birth and my friend who gave it to us knew it.
With that said, I think any other kind of *normal* gift would be fantastic too! Congrats to your friends and the birth of their baby!
I think the best gift that we received when our dd was in the hospital was a big basket with bottled water, Cliff bars, cereal bars, microwave popcorn, tons of snack type food, and a few things for our dd too. It was just so nice to have food to snack on available. We also had people send cards with cash inside which was nice because we could use it to buy food in the cafeteria...or we could eat out.
I think the gifts like microwave popcorn, water, cereal bars etc. is a really good idea too
The best gift we ever received while dd2 was in the NICU was preemie clothes. We weren't expecting a preemie (infact my other two were over 10 lbs and 8 lbs.). Even though she couldn't wear them until we came home (because of all the tubes in her bellybutton etc.) It was nice to have them waiting for her and looking at them in the closet. I made her seem more normal looking KWIM? When newborn clothes swallowed her whole it was just a reminder of how small she was and what we went through.
When my dear friend had a micropreemie in the NICU, my kids picked out a small stuffed bear for the baby. My friend put it in the baby's incubator (along w/ her great-grandma's rosary beads). When the bear first went in, it was bigger than the baby. When the baby went home (3 months later), the baby was bigger than the bear! My friend used to give baby growth updates based on how the baby compared to the bear.
I know my friend and her DH had a tough time paying for gas and hospital parking, so I'd also suggest gas cards and, if the hospital has them, pre-paid parking cards.