Introduction to the NICU
Dr. Gerry Cleary educates parents on the NICU environment, the machines and treatments, and the care the staff provides. Watch the video»
Your Baby in the NICU
What is the NICU?
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is where your newborn will stay for days, weeks, or possibly longer, depending on the baby’s degree of prematurity. This department or area in the hospital is where hospital staff care for newborns who have medical complications, or babies who have been born prematurely. Here, your baby will be provided with the optimal environment for growth.
And you can be right there the whole time. Though the environment in the NICU can be intimidating, health care professionals will familiarize you with it so you can participate in the care process.
Advances in neonatal care—from the amount of oxygen administered to how a neonate's temperature is monitored—have helped take some of the questions and worry out of the NICU. These innovations have made the process of caring for a premature baby more safe and comprehensive than ever.
What Do All These Machines Do?
Learn about the machines that are commonly found in the NICU. Using the arrows, scroll through each machine and read about what they do and how they take care of your baby.
Other Treatments and Technologies
ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) is commonly used in the NICU if the baby is in pulmonary distress. It is a treatment that provides oxygenation until the baby’s lung function has sufficiently recovered to maintain appropriate oxygen levels. The ECMO machine continuously pumps blood from the baby through a membrane oxygenator that imitates the gas exchange process of the lungs; by removing carbon dioxide and adding oxygen. The oxygenated blood is then returned to the baby.
To better monitor the progress and development of your baby’s internal organs, nurses and doctors look at x-rays. It helps them determine the best course of action to treat your baby’s condition especially if he is having some lung issues. Technologies today allow for x-rays to be done in incubators without having to disturb your baby. You will notice a small tray under the bed that will hold the x-ray film.
Ultrasound imaging is a common diagnostic procedure used in the NICU; it simply gives you a clear picture inside the body. It is performed by radiology or ultrasound technicians or clinicians to check on the baby’s developing organs, blood flow in the brain, and inside the body. The procedure involves using a transducer, which is a small hand held device that sends waves into the body and detects their echoes as they bounce off internal structures. Ultrasound could be performed while the baby is resting in the incubator.
What Is My Role?
Although much of what is needed for your baby to mature in the NICU will be handled by NICU staff, your role as parents will be no less important. A baby's suck/swallow/breath system is too immature for direct feeding, but a mother's pumped breast milk—fed to the baby through a tube—can provide excellent nutrition for the premature child.
What is Kangaroo Care?
Kangaroo Care is the process of initiating skin-to-skin contact between you and your newborn. It has been well established that Kangaroo Care is one of the most important, nurturing gifts both mother and father can give to their baby.
Fathers: With a blanket draped over your baby's back, place him or her on your bare chest.
Mothers: Place the baby between your breasts.
This care has several benefits, including establishing an enduring bond between parent and child through touch and smell. The process can help regulate your baby's heart and breathing rates, increase weight, calm the baby, provide deeper sleep, and regulate his or her temperature. Read a research article about the positive effects of Kangeroo Care.
For some new parents, the thought of handling such a small baby may seem frightening. But starting with gentle contact through the Kangaroo Care method will allow parents to become increasingly comfortable with handling their newborn before it's time to leave the hospital. Then, the real journey begins.
Some NICU facilities place restrictions on when in your baby's growing process—and for how long—it is deemed safe for mother and father to participate in unrestricted Kangaroo Care. Your doctor should let you know if your child has matured to the point where Kangaroo Care is allowed. If you're not sure, ask.
If you feel unsure of yourself and your role in the NICU, ask your NICU nurses and other staff what you can do to help your child. Just being there is your main role. Some parents visit their baby on a regular basis while others prefer to stay for longer periods of time. It is important for you to find the right balance based on other factors in your life including other children, work, or family needs.
Working With Nurses in the NICU
The care of your baby is something shared by everyone in the NICU, including the doctors, the nurses, and not least of all, the parents. Mother and nurse, especially, will share a bond between them. The mother's instincts, the nurse's training, and the NICU's technology intertwine to create an environment optimal for the growth of your baby.
Neonatal Nurse Practitioners are Extensively Trained
The nurses in the NICU will spend the most hands-on time with your baby, so it is critical that mother and nurse work in concert with each other. NICU nurses have been extensively trained in:
- Working with premature babies
- Resuscitating newborns
- Operating of the same equipment that neonatologist pediatricians operate
This training ensures that your child is receiving the same high level of knowledgeable care at all times, regardless of whether the person on staff is a respiratory therapist, a clinical practitioner, or a bedside nurse.
As your premature baby matures into a fully grown infant, the torch of responsibility will be passed from nurse to mother, and true parenthood will begin. For now, however, rest assured that the nurses in this NICU facility are your partners in the delicate care of your baby, with only one clear goal in mind: helping your baby grow strong enough to go home.