What does NICU stand for?
NICU stands for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit1. It’s a special unit in hospitals that looks after premature or unwell babies and provides intensive care. In the NICU you’ll find specialised doctors and nurses in prenatal care as well as special equipment and technology to best help premature babies. A ‘preemie’ is a term to describe a premature baby.
What is neonatal care?
Neonatal means newborn2, so neonatal care is care that focuses on babies after they are first born. It refers to newborn babies or babies up until they are 28 days old3.
Why do babies go to the NICU?
Babies typically need to go to the NICU if they are born too early, are low weight, unwell, or have a medical condition that requires specialised care3. They may also need to spend some time in the NICU if:
there were complications in labour
the baby has certain issues such as breathing problems or needs surgery
the baby is a twin or multiple.
Types of care in the NICU
The type of care that your NICU preemie receives depends on their age, condition, and severity of their illness. Typically, babies will be moved to the NICU or a Special Care Nursery, depending on their needs.
Neonatal Intensive Care Units
These units are typically reserved for babies born prematurely who need constant care and support.
Special Care Nurseries
If your baby needs additional care but is too strong to be admitted to the NICU, they may be moved to a Special Care Nursery (SCN). The babies in these facilities may be of a low birth weight, premature, or need extra care for a neonatal health problem.
What happens in the NICU?
The NICU can be a daunting and even scary environment for NICU parents. There are lots of different machines, noises, and people around which may feel stressful if you don’t understand who everyone is or what everything is for.
However, the NICU is designed to provide your baby with the best care possible. To keep your baby warm and comfortable they will either be placed in an incubator or a heated open cot. Your baby may also have:
Leads on their chest to monitor their heart and lungs.
A ventilator to help provide breathing support.
A tube in their hand or foot with intravenous (IV) fluids.
Sensors on their hand or foot to monitor oxygen levels.
A catheter in their umbilical cord.
Feeding tube and pump.
While all of this may look scary and unusual, it’s essential to help your baby grow and recover until they’re ready to go home with you to start the next chapter. Ask the healthcare professionals in NICU to explain what everything is and how it is helping they’ll be more than happy to help you understand.
NICU healthcare team
You’ll get to know a variety of people while your baby is in the NICU. You’re likely to be looked after by:
Laboratory, echocardiogram, or X-ray technicians
Physiotherapists, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists
Checklist before going into the NICU
Feeling prepared for time spent in the NICU may help to make the experience less daunting. Here are a few things that we recommend taking along when you visit your little one:
A cosy jumper to keep warm
Plenty of snacks
A book or Kindle
Neck pillow for resting and short naps
Face or body wipes to refresh yourself
Notebook and pen
Mobile phone and charger
Advice for NICU Parents
As a NICU parent, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself too. Make sure that you’re taking the time to eat and sleep4. Seek support from friends and family when you need it.
How often should I visit my NICU baby?
You should not feel guilty if you’re not spending every possible minute in the NICU – it’s important to get some rest and recharge too. Consider organising shifts with your partner if possible, so one of you gets some rest and time with your family as well as your baby in NICU.
When can premature babies go home?
Your baby’s healthcare team will consider different variables when it comes to deciding on the right time for you to take your baby home5. In many cases, babies may be ready to leave the NICU when:
They reach their planned due date.
Can maintain their temperature in a regular open cot.
Are at a healthy and stable weight.
Can take most or all feedings by breast or bottle.
No longer require IV medication.
Post-NICU Tip Sheet
The first few weeks after returning home from the NICU can be overwhelming for parents. Our tip sheet provides important guidance for parents on what to expect and how to look after themselves through self-care activities and relying on support networks.
Sometimes parents just need to hear a few comforting words. Our affirmation cards provide words of reassurance and inspiration to support parents of premature babies as they navigate the emotional ups and downs of post-NICU life.
A little help goes a long way. Our pledge cards encourage friends and family to provide care and support to parents through simple, but meaningful gestures.
The NICU & your baby: what to expect | Raising Children Network
What is neonatal care? - Liverpool Womens NHS Foundation Trust
Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) | Pregnancy Birth and Baby (pregnancybirthbaby.org.au)
Premature birth | HCF
Managing Costs for a NICU Stay (investopedia.com)
How we wrote this guide
The information in this guide is based on parental and medical information from a range of sources including Better Health Victoria, the NHS, and Raising Children Network.