What to Expect in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)


Few parents-to-be expect to set foot inside a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The very thought of the neonatal intensive care unit probably conjures up images of tubing, beeping machines, and ill babies. But the work done in this special unit of a hospital is very important to the lives of the babies who are admitted there.

What is the neonatal intensive care unit?

An intensive care unit designated especially for newborn babies, the neonatal intensive care unit provides equipment and staff specifically trained to treat newborn babies who are sick or had complications at birth. The babies treated in the neonatal intensive care unit are typically admitted within the first 24 hours of life and have not yet left the hospital since being born.

Babies in the neonatal intensive care unit are often on various feeding schedules and/or medications. The doctors will likely order periodic tests, such as blood tests, x-rays, or ultrasounds, to make sure your baby is developing properly.

Why are babies admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit?

There are endless circumstances that could result in your baby being admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit. Three main high-risk factors that contribute to admission to the NICU are maternal, delivery, and baby factors. Here are some examples of each:

  1. Maternal factors – Drug or alcohol use, premature rupture of membranes, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, bleeding
  2. Delivery factors – Breech delivery, Nuchal cord (umbilical cord wrapped around baby’s neck), forceps or cesarean delivery, fetal distress
  3. Baby factors – Born at less than 37 weeks (premature birth), birth defects, respiratory distress, infection, seizures

The length of baby’s stay in the neonatal intensive care unit varies with the diagnosis, but know that the physicians and nurses caring for your baby will not recommend sending him home until they’re sure he’s ready. Babies must reach certain milestones to be able to leave the neonatal intensive care unit.

Unsure of what to expect after a premature delivery? Check here for more details.

What makes the neonatal intensive care unit different?

Each baby in the neonatal intensive care unit has a unique set of circumstances. There are resources available in the NICU specifically designed to assist the tiniest of human beings who are sick or born with physical infirmities. The staff found in the neonatal intensive care unit have special training in neonatology care and may include a neonatologist, various specialists (neurologist, cardiologist, respiratory therapist), a nutritionist, and many others.

The amount of equipment in the neonatal intensive care unit may seem overwhelming for parents at first, but each piece plays a crucial role in helping babies grow healthy and strong. Ventilators (breathing machines), monitors, infant warmers (heated beds), and IV lines are just a few of the items found in a neonatal intensive care unit.

It’s important to learn as much as possible about the medical concerns and treatment options for your baby. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions! The doctors and nurses are working with your baby every day and night and can give constant updates on how he/she is doing. And don’t worry; most babies who spend their first days in the neonatal intensive care develop into healthy children and those early moments spent in the NICU will seem short in hindsight.





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