NICU stands for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and it’s a designated hospital ward for newborn babies where they are safely monitored, protected and treated by specialist medical staff.

Which babies need to stay in NICU?

Newborns that are premature (before 37 weeks), have a low birth weight (less than 2.5kg) or experience a traumatic birth are often taken to NICU so they can be monitored closely while they grow and rest in a climate-controlled, protected environment.

Parents of multiples or babies with existing conditions identified in the womb, may be advised during the pregnancy that NICU is likely, or if it will be essential.

Can I visit my baby in NICU?

Vulnerable newborns in intensive care are isolated because they are highly susceptible to germs and viruses. Parents can usually spend time with their babies 24 hours a day in all but exceptional circumstances – COVID being an example. Aside from the quiet beeps and noises of machines monitoring babies’ vitals or pumping oxygen into incubators, you can expect the ward to be fairly quiet.

Bonding with baby in NICU

Medical staff will support you to ensure you get as much contact and time alone with your baby as possible. You will be shown how best to feed, touch and hold them, and can expect to be included in nappy changes, cleaning and bathing where appropriate.

Depending on the nature of the stay, you might only be able to touch your baby at first, and not pick them up. The nurses will show you the best ways to make physical contact and will remove non-essential monitors for periods of time to make it easier for you to feed and cuddle your newborn.

NICU babies can find it hard to suck initially, so your baby made be fed through a nasal tube in the short term. You will be talked through this, encouraged to express breast milk, or to nurse your baby to your breast as they are tube fed so that they start to associate the sucking reflex with food.

Where possible you will be shown how to get the best skin-to-skin contact with your baby – sometimes called kangaroo cuddling – which will increase the bonding and feelings of intimacy.

Remember that as well as physical touch, your baby will have been hearing your voice in utero, so they’ll love to listen to you talk, sing or read to them.

Parents can usually visit or stay with their baby 24 hours a day.

What machines and tubes are in NICU?

Most babies in NICU will spend their time in climate-controlled incubators where air or oxygen can be pumped inside to ensure they are protected and given the best climate in which to thrive. Ventilators are used to assist babies with breathing difficulties, and as the lungs are among the last main organ to fully develop (at about 37 weeks), these are commonly used in NICU.

MACHINES & MONITORS

Apnea monitor Detects if a baby stops breathing for a few seconds.

Blood pressure monitor A cuff on the arm or leg, which takes regular readings.

Cardiopulmonary monitor Attaches to the chest with sticky leads to track heart and breathing rates.

CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) Provides oxygen or air via nasal or tracheal (windpipe) tubes.

TUBES & LINES

Arterial line A thin tube that goes into the artery to monitor blood pressure.

Central line This goes into a large blood vessel and makes it easy for medicines and fluids to be administered, as well as for blood to be drawn.

Gastric feeding tube Attaches to a baby’s stomach to provide fluids for longer-term feeding needs.

Intravenous line Goes into a vein and allows fluids, medicine and blood to be given. Nasal canula are tubes that permit air and oxygen to go through to the lungs.

Nasogastric (NG) tube A feeding tube that goes through the nose and down into the stomac.h

LIGHTS & MORE

Bili lights Therapy lights are placed over the incubator to treat jaundice.

Pulse oximeter Painless device on foot or hand to monitor oxygen levels.

Radiant warmer Open-style bed with overhead heating; it allows for quick access to a baby.