Usually this happens to parents who see their child for the first time. Society has imprinted into our minds the image of a newborn. When these parents see that the image of their child differs so much from what they're expecting, it just sends a wave of shock through their system.
Often after all the medical stuff are settled into the parents' mind, guilt sets in and they start to ask themselves things like "what have I done to deserve this?" or "did I cause this?"
In some ways, feeling helpless may be the worse. One particular child in the NICU suffers from a condition where he can't move. I don't know the name of the condition but it's a nerve condition rather than orthopedic and extremely tricky to treat. His mother comes every day to massage him and move his limbs around. The child never even flinches. The emotionless expression on his mother's face is just heartbreaking.
After a doctor/nurse presents negative news to parents, it just feels like everything is falling apart. We've been through our share of this. But even when it happens to someone else, we actually feel it too. I've overheard a nurse tell a couple that their child might not make it through because of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). I could literally see their wills shatter before my eyes as both of them were reduced to a crying mess of tears and their speech becomes incoherent.
It's empowering to parents if the doctor/nurse have positive news to report. That's why it's always important to get daily updates even though this puts you at risk of hearing negative news. Every bit of improvement adds to the "we just might make it through this" feeling.
There are babies who are off the vent, out of the incubator, and are fed via bottles. They have parents who come to feed them, burp them, cuddle them, and play with them. Their faces are just beaming as they use baby-talk and tell their child about how life would be when they get to carry their bundle of love home.