What is a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)?

Dr. Deborah Raines, MSN
Nursing Specialist

NICU is an acronym for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In some setting the NICU is also called the Special Care Nursery or Intensive Care Nursery.  It is a specialized nursery for the care of ill or premature newborn infants. A neonatologist is usually the director and the NICU is staffed by nurses, physicians, pharmacists, respiratory therapists and others with special knowledge of the unique needs of premature and sick infants. Many of the babies in the NICU are being cared for with specialized technologies to maintain their breathing, nutritional status, and body temperature while they grow and recover. In addition, special attention is given to the infant’s developmental needs and to parent-infant attachment with the baby is a patient in the NICU.

It's difficult to predict when a baby will be born prematurely and need specialized care. Therefore, it’s essential that a hospital be ready. Neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) have high-risk doctors available for infants who are born prematurely or with medical conditions. They also have ventilator support for preterm deliveries where the baby's lungs are still immature.

One in eight babies in the U.S. is born prematurely and may face weeks or even months in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to address serious medical complications resulting from underdeveloped organs. While the latest “high-tech” strategies continue to improve long-term survival for premature infants at the highest risk for neonatal death, a “high touch” approach is recommended to ensure quality of life and alleviate the anxieties of parents preparing to take their babies home, experts say.

“Parents of premature and other high-risk infants watch their babies face difficulties with breathing, feeding, tolerating breast milk or formula, jaundice and a myriad of other problems that require constant medical attention,” says Sherin Devaskar, M.D., physician-in-chief of Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Their concern is natural and to be expected.”

According to Dr. Devaskar, premature and other high-risk infants are admitted to the NICU and monitored constantly until they are able to suck, swallow and breathe without help from a ventilator and maintain their body temperature. Treatments that support their development include surfactant replacement and gentle ventilation to reduce inflammation to premature lungs resulting from mechanical ventilation, total parenteral nutrition to prevent malnourishment, photo therapy to reduce jaundice, cooling to prevent long-term neurological injury caused by low oxygen or low blood flow before or during delivery, or the extracorporeal membrane oxygenator to assist some babies with breathing during transition from the womb to the outside world.

“These specialized techniques used at the beginning of life influence the entire trajectory of the child’s life,” says Dr. Devaskar. “Neonatal health spells adult health.”

Dr. Diana K. Blythe, MD

A NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit, is for newborns who are born prematurely, very sick, or at high risk for becoming sick. For these babies special care may be needed for monitoring, breathing, circulation, infection, or other things. Some babies who are born extremely prematurely may stay for months. Other babies who were there for monitoring may stay a few days or even just overnight.

Whichever your reason for having a baby in the NICU, be sure to ask a lot of questions and do not feel bad about repeating your questions until you understand. The nurses and doctors who work in the NICU realize that you are scared. No one is going to be bothered by answering your questions.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.