What to Expect in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)

While a baby is in the womb, it depends on the mother’s body for important functions such as breathing, elimination of waste and immune protection. Immediately after birth, the baby’s biological systems must work together in a new way, and sometimes a baby will have trouble making the transition.

In the U.S., nearly half a million babies are born preterm, and it has been estimated that 9 to 13% of all infants require neonatal intensive care. If a baby is born preterm or with health problems, they may need specialized care in a neonatal intensive care unit, also called a NICU.

What is a NICU?

A NICU provides newborn babies with intensive and specialized care. NICU staff includes neonatologists, neonatal nurse practitioners and nurses with special training to care for infants in an intensive care setting. Many NICUs also have social workers, nutritionists, therapy specialists and pharmacists to provide additional care.

There are many devices a NICU may use to care for a newborn, some of which may include:

  • Nasal cannula: Provides pressure and oxygen to support breathing
  • Feeding tube: Delivers breast milk, formula and medicine
  • Intravenous line: Provides medicine and fluids
  • Pulse oximeter: Measures the amount of oxygen in the blood
  • Cardiopulmonary monitor: Monitors heart rate and breathing rate
  • Temperature probe: Helps the warming bed regulate the baby’s temperature
  • Blood pressure monitor: Measures the newborn’s blood pressure
  • Specialized beds: Provide an environment for baby to grow and heal

When are babies admitted to a NICU?

“Many of the babies who are admitted to a NICU are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy, have a low birth weight of less than 5.5 pounds or have a health condition that needs special care, such as breathing trouble, heart problems, infections or birth defects,” said Mohamed Hassan, MD, a neonatologist at Penn Highlands DuBois. “Twins, triplets and other multiples are admitted to a NICU because they are often born early and small.”

Maternal factors that may lead to a baby requiring a NICU admission include but are not limited to:

  • Teenage or advance maternal age pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Too little or too much amniotic fluid
  • Preterm labor
  • Substance Use Disorder

Delivery factors may include but are not limited to:

  • Baby’s position during labor -- buttocks delivered first (breech birth) or other abnormal position
  • Umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck
  • Forceps or cesarean delivery

How long do babies stay in the NICU?

“Every situation is different. Length of stay in the NICU is dependent on the baby’s health needs,” said Dr. Hassan. “Babies who are born very early, stay in the NICU the longest. Very premature babies will often stay there until they reach their due date.”

Babies who need intensive care typically do better if they are born in a hospital with a NICU. Talk to your obstetrician or birth provider about choosing the right location for you.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Penn Highlands DuBois is the only NICU in the region, with other nearest NICUs 100 miles away. The Penn Highlands NICU is a 16-bed unit with specially trained and certified nurses, nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, speech pathologists and social workers who work alongside Dr. Hassan to provide care. The NICU has state-of-the art technology, equipment and tools that enable Penn Highlands to offer the best possible care to families and their babies. To learn more, visit www.phhealthcare.org/nicu.