Special Equipment: Treating Babies in NICU


Walking into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for the first time can easily be overwhelming. Not only is it a bit disheartening to see such tiny babies in NICU in the first place, there are noisy machines and supplies throughout that can make an emotional parent feel overcome. The truth is, every device found in a neonatal intensive care unit plays an essential part in sustaining life for a newborn baby who is unable to do so on his/her own.

The nature of this equipment is broken into three categories:

Devices that monitor

  • Pulse oximetry – Measures blood oxygen saturation and is taped to baby’s fingers or toes.
  • Temperature probe – A coated wire is attached to baby’s skin with a patch and keeps track of body temperature. Premature babies in NICU cannot maintain their own body temperature; see “infant warmers” below.
  • Vital signs – Heart rate and infant respiratory rate are often displayed on a single monitor and are measured by chest leads (harmless stickers placed on baby’s chest). A tiny blood pressure cuff is placed on baby’s arm or leg to check blood pressure at regular intervals. An arterial line, like an IV but in an artery rather than a vein, is sometimes placed to collect vital signs.
  • Scale – Not a fancy piece of equipment by any means, but fundamental in the care of a baby in the NICU, as medication, IV solution, and feeding is calculated based off baby’s weight. Babies in NICU are weighed daily (measured in grams) to assess progress.
Devices that test or provide treatment
  1. Ventilator – Also called a respirator, these machines help a baby breathe.
  2. X-ray, ultrasound, CT scans, MRI – Procedures ordered by your baby’s physician to see what is going on inside her body. Some are portable and can be brought to treat babies in NICU. They allow a glimpse of tissues, vessels, organs, bones, muscles, and even brain tissue, which can be very enlightening regarding baby’s health.
  3. Phototherapy – Sometimes called “bili light”, it’s used to treat jaundice, a condition caused from excess bilirubin that tints baby’s skin and whites of the eyes yellow. Your baby will lie on a light therapy blanket and have a blue light attached to the bed or isolette.

Neonatal incubators and other tools

  • Isolettes – Neonatal incubators whose primary function is to help protect babies in a clean environment from excess stimulation, such as noise, drafts, and handling.
  • Infant warmers – Premature infants are not yet able to regulate body temperature and must rely on these infant warmers to keep their bodies at a steady temperature.
  • IV (intravenous) lines and arterial lines – Inserted using a small needle, they provide a way to deliver medication and fluids without giving baby injections every few hours.
  • Feeding tubes – Often, babies in NICU cannot get all the nourishment they need from a bottle or breastfeeding, so a little feeding tube is inserted through the baby’s nose or mouth directly to the stomach.

Taking the time to ask your baby’s nurse any questions you have about the medical equipment and why it is used for your child can bring a greater level of understanding and is worthwhile for a NICU parent. This is your child, and even though the neonatal intensive care unit is filled with professionals trained to care for sick or premature newborns, none of them share the special bond of being his/her parent. It’s okay (encouraged, actually!) to be involved with your little one’s care – and looking beyond the incubators and tubing – while he/she is in the NICU.

Check here for expert tips on must-know facts for parents on premature birth.





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