Women's Healthcare Topics

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

What happens if your Baby goes to the NICU

The part of the hospital dedicated to treating babies who were born too early or those who are sick, is called the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. It’s also sometimes called the intensive care nursery, newborn intensive care unit or special care nursery. Neonatal refers to a newborn.

Your baby may end up in the NICU for these reasons:

  • Problems during the birth including trouble breathing or infection

  • Was born sick or premature (at least 3 weeks before mother’s due date)

  • Health problems evident within a few days of birth including problems with intestines, lungs or heart, or also jaundice (skin or white part of the eye turns yellowish)

The doctors and nurses who work in NICU have been specially trained for treating premature and sick newborns. The staff could include:

  • One or more nurses assigned to your baby

  • Nutritionist (trained to take care of baby’s feedings)

  • Neonatologist (doctor trained in newborn medicine and in charge)

  • Respiratory therapist (gives treatments to help baby breathe)

  • Specialist (trained to treat certain body parts, such as the heart or brain)
The part of the hospital dedicated to treating sick babies, is called the neonatal intensive care unit.

What happens in the NICU?

To begin with, your child will be placed in a special bed. This could be an incubator, or isolette. This type of bed has clear plastic surrounding it, and keeps your baby warm and safe. Your baby may also be placed in a warmer. This open-type of bed includes an overhead heater.

Other things that take place in the NICU include:

  • Testing - A series of tests will likely be performed to give your child the best care possible. This may include X-rays, urine tests or blood tests.

  • Monitoring - Each baby is carefully watched and monitored. Your baby may be connected to a screen with wires stuck on your baby’s skin like stickers. These usually won’t hurt your baby. The screen will track your baby’s vital signs. This includes your baby’s blood pressure, breathing rate, pulse and temperature.

  • Medicines - Most babies placed in the NICU will need at least one medicine. This may include infection-fighting antibiotics or medicines that help your baby’s lungs or heart to work. You child may also need an IV placed in a vein to allow doctors to give your baby medicine.

  • Additional treatments - Your baby may need other treatments depending on why they are in the NICU. Babies having trouble breathing may need to be attached to a machine called a ventilator to help them breathe. Babies with jaundice may need to be under a special light.

As a parent, you can visit the NICU. It’s important that you spend time with your baby.

Sometimes, you’ll be able to hold your baby. Use this time to comfort and bond with your baby. Some doctors suggest skin-to-skin contact. In this case, you hold your baby on your bare chest with your baby clothed only in a diaper.

In some situations, it’s not possible to hold your baby in the NICU. You may still be able to stroke your baby’s head or hold their hand, though. If you can’t touch your baby, sing or talk to your child. The nurses and doctors will help you with keeping your baby safe.

Usually other family members can also visit your child, but there will likely be special rules. These rules may include the times they can visit and what they need to do beforehand. This may involve wearing a mask, a special hospital gown and washing their hands. Children may not be allowed to visit, though, since kids are at a greater risk of carrying germs that could harm a sick or small newborn.

Feeding my baby in the NICU

How your baby is fed depends on how premature your baby is, or how sick your child is. It’s possible your baby may still be able to nurse, or drink from a bottle. In other cases, though, your baby may need a feeding tube. This small tube goes in baby’s mouth or nose, down their throat, and into their stomach. The tube takes formula or breast milk right to your baby’s stomach. When babies are too sick for a feeding tube, an IV may be used.

If you want to breastfeed, make sure you speak with the nurses and doctors. Lactation consultants, or rather breastfeeding experts, can help you. If your baby’s not able to suck from your breast, you may want to try a breast pump. This pump takes milk from your breasts, which can then be poured in a bottle or into a feeding tube. If your baby can’t take milk yet, you can store your breast milk for later.

Bringing Baby Home

How soon you can take your baby home depends on your baby. With some health issues, babies only need to be in the NICU for a few days. Some babies, however, are very premature or sick, and may need to remain in the NICU for weeks or months.

Your child’s nurses and doctors will help you understand your baby’s progress and when you might take your child home. You’ll also get some instructions on caring for your baby at home, and about the follow-up appointments you’ll need in the future.


Having a child in the NICU can be stressful and difficult. There are hospital chaplains, or rather spiritual counselors, as well as social workers that can help you. There are also support groups out there, made up of parents who also have premature or sick babies. It may help you to be able to talk to others going through a similar situation. Try to lean on these sources, as well as friends and relatives. This gives you a support team both at home and in the hospital.

This article is dedicated to a very special friend: Bette Jeannine Hillock, 53, died Sept. 8, 2005, at Loma Linda University Hospital in Loma Linda of cancer. She was a NICU nurse practitioner for 28 years at Loma Linda Hospital in Loma Linda, California.


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