What is the NICU?
Babies who are born prematurely, have undergone a difficult birth, or have underlying may need to go to the NICU section of the hospital. These babies usually go within 24 hours of birth, and they may need to stay hours, days, weeks, or months before discharge.
What Does NICU Mean?
NICU stands for neonatal intensive care unit. This portion of the hospital is a way for newborns to receive comprehensive care from a team of experts. Although the most common name for this hospital wing is the NICU (pronounced “NIK-yoo”), some facilities use the following names:
- Special care nursery
- Intensive care nursery
- Newborn intensive care nursery
- Well newborn nursery
Can I Visit the NICU?
Parents can visit their babies in the NICU. Moreover, visitation is necessary for fulfilling physician-recommended activities such as kangaroo care. The NICU may also allow other family members to visit. However, such visitations occur only during designated hours and allow only a few family members in at a time.
Guidelines for children visiting the NICU may be even stricter. Children who visit must be well (no sickness or illness) and must have had all of their immunizations. As a precaution, you should call ahead before visiting to verify who can enter the unit.
What Should I Expect When Visiting the NICU?
Everyone who visits the NICU must wash their hands thoroughly. The NICU has a sink and antibacterial soap located near the entrance for this purpose. You will need to roll up your sleeves and wash thoroughly between your fingers, palms, back of your hands, and up to your elbows. This step is essential to minimizing the risk of exposing babies to germs. Remember to follow the same process after going to the bathroom or changing your infant’s diaper.
Some NICUs also require guests to wear a hospital gown, hospital gloves, or a mask. Others also require you use a sanitary wipe and then to stow away any smartphones, cameras, laptops, or tablets. You should call ahead if you have questions or concerns about the requirements.
Check with the staff before bringing your baby toys or gifts. If you can bring these items, hospitals request that they are wipeable or easy to clean (do not bring stuffed animals). You may also be able to tape pictures or decorations near the infant’s incubator.
What Type of Medical Equipment is in the NICU?
It is easy to feel overwhelmed with all the equipment you might see upon entering the NICU. But rest assured, each machine serves a purpose. By familiarizing yourself with some of the items you might encounter, you can feel more comfortable about how this equipment can help your infant get better.
- Feeding Tube – Small or premature babies may not be ready to breastfeed or bottle-feed. Feeding tubes deliver formula or breastmilk to provide the calories and nutrients your baby needs to grow. The tubes enter through the mouth or nose to deliver milk to the baby’s stomach. You may also see NICU nurses switch out the feeding tube often to prevent the risk of soreness.
- Infant Warmer – An infant warmer is a custom bed with overhead heater. This bed helps keep infants warm while under monitoring or observation. Infant warmers are usually open for easy access to the baby.
- Incubator – A temperature-controlled bed enclosed with hard, clear plastic. Unlike the open infant warmer, incubators feature holes through which doctors or nurses care for your child.
- IV Tube – IV is an abbreviation for intravenous catheter. This thin, flexible tube enters a vein to deliver medicine and fluid. Nearly all infants in the NICU have IVs in their hands or arms, but some babies might also need them in the feet, legs, or scalp. You might hear nurses explaining they need to deliver medicine via IV-drip or IV-infusion (instead of giving the baby multiple shots in one day).
- Lines – These larger tubes facilitate actions that IVs are too small provide. There are two types of lines:
- Arterial lines – These lines are unique since they go into the arteries instead of the veins. Arterial lines check oxygen levels and blood pressure (of course, some infants use blood pressure cuffs instead).
- Central lines – These surgically placed tubes go into large veins in the chest, groin, or neck. They are used to administer more fluid or medication than a regular IV can.
- Monitors – Monitors display your infant’s vital signs. These screens help caregivers check heart rate, breathing, and temperature. There several components that connect to a monitor within a typical NICU:
- Blood Pressure Monitor – Provides data via an arterial line or blood pressure cuff.
- Chest Leads – These tiny, painless stickers are among the most recognizable components of a monitor setup. The round stickers attach to your baby’s chest and include wires that connect to the display monitor. Chest leads track heart rate and breathing.
- Pulse Oximetry – A small, painless machine taped to your baby’s fingers or toes like a tiny bandage. Also called a “pulse ox” for short, you may recognize this device by its characteristic red light. This machine keeps track of blood oxygen levels.
- Temperature Probe – A coated wire attached to your infant’s skin with a painless patch to record body temperature for the display monitor.
- Nasal Cannula – A plastic tube that fits in the nostrils and provides extra oxygen if needed.
- Oxygen Hood – A covering that fits over the head and provides extra oxygen if needed.
- Phototherapy – This type of infant light therapy treats jaundice of the eyes and skin. Treatment may include a light therapy blanket and fluorescent bulbs attached to beds or incubators over the course of a few days.
- Ventilator – A ventilator is a special machine that assists with breathing. Doctors may attach an endotracheal tube to windpipe through the mouth or nose to connect the infant to the ventilator. Babies expected to remain in the NICU for months may need a tracheostomy (surgical insertion of the tube directly into the windpipe) that connects the ventilator on the other end.
Can I Hold My Baby?
If physically possible, most healthcare providers encourage gentle and reassuring touch. You may be able to hold the baby even if the infant is connected to a ventilator or uses an IV. Even the physician believes moving your child would cause the infant too much stress, you may still be able to hold your child’s hand.
Keep in mind that for very premature infants, touching may be too stressful. However, it is still important for the bonding process that you spend as much time with your infant as possible. Consult with the NICU staff on the best way to interact given your child’s specific condition.