What happens in the neonatal intensive care unit

The neonatal intensive care unit, most often shortened to NICU, is a special facility equipped to nurture the frailest babies, those that are born with defects, illness or underdeveloped bodies. Not every premature baby will need to stay in the NICU, but those who do will typically be admitted in the first 24 hours following delivery. Nobody wants to hear that their tiny newborn needs to stay in an intensive care unit, but if you do, you can take comfort in the fact that today's NICUs are exceptionally attuned to the needs of a newborn. Once you learn what to expect in an NICU and how you will be able to interact with your baby, it will be easier to overcome your worries and focus on helping your baby.


When Babies Need the NICU

The main reasons to admit a baby to the NICU are premature delivery, difficulties during the delivery and signs of problems in the first days following their birth. In any case, the babies that go to the NICU are those that haven't yet left the hospital -- they're still very young.

The most common specialists that work in the NICU are neonatologists and NICU nurses, and although the neonatologist is responsible for diagnosing and deciding on a course of treatment, the NICU nurse will be responsible for the day-to-day care of the babies. Of course, the size and scope of your medical team will depend on your baby's specific problem: neonatology fellows, pediatric hospitalists, nutritionists, respiratory therapists and occupational therapists may play a role in your case, too.

NICU Equipment for Premature Baby Care

When your baby stays in the NICU, you'll forge a close relationship with the nurses. The nurses care for your baby each day, and they are the ones who will relay information and offer reassurance while your baby stays in the NICU. Feel free to ask them questions about your baby's progress and about the rules of the NICU to coordinate visits and bonding time. Keep in mind that nurses do not diagnose conditions and will not be able to give you a comprehensive picture of the entire plan of care -- seek out the neonatologist if you have big picture questions.

In the NICU, each baby will have a specific feeding schedule, most will receive medication and some may need help with their breathing. This means that there will be feeding tubes, heaters, IV lines and monitors connected to your baby, which can be startling for visitors. Remember that these units and all of the machines they use are there to help your baby, and it's good to ask questions to better understand how the process and machines work to calm your own worries.