What is the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit?

As parents, you eagerly look forward to welcoming your baby into the world and bringing your new family member home. Understandably, it can be traumatic if your baby requires extra care. Having a baby born not as expected, whether that be sick or premature, can be life-changing but know that you are not alone. Also know, that there is support available to help you cope and navigate the NICU and life at home, along with connecting with others going through a similar experience; visit: www.miraclebabies.org.au to find out more.

If you give birth to a premature or sick newborn, they may need to be admitted into a specialised area of the hospital that is equipped to care for them. This specialised unit may be called one of the following:

  • Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU)
  • Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)
  • Intensive Care Nursery (ICN)
  • Special Care Nursery (SCN)
  • Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU)

Understandably, these specialised medical units can be very foreign and highly technical environments. At first, parents may find this overwhelming and a little frightening, but understanding the unit and what occurs within it can assist in reducing your fears. If your baby needs admission into a more specialised unit such as a NICU or SCN, he or she may be able to stay in the hospital where they were born, or they may need to be transferred to a different hospital for ongoing care. The chosen hospital will depend on the baby’s condition and the treatment needed.

A NICU combines advanced, life-supporting equipment with trained health care professionals. It is an intensive care unit designed to meet the unique needs of premature and sick newborns. Some of the babies are critically ill, while others may need specialised care and observation as they grow. In Australia, just about all hospitals with maternity services have some type of nursery for the close observation of babies.

Babies are often admitted within the first 24 hours of their birth and may require specialised care if:

  • They are born prematurely (before 37 weeks’ gestation)
  • They have a low birth weight (less than 2500 grams)
  • Difficulties occur during their delivery
  • They are full-term but have a complication such as difficulties with breathing, infections, surgical needs or birth defects
  • They are one of a set of twins, triplets or other multiples. These babies are often admitted to a NICU as they tend to be born earlier and smaller than single birth babies

Many NICUs and SCNs have quiet times; this is a specific time throughout the day that is allocated to giving the babies a rest. Usually, the lights are dimmed, curtains closed, and noise kept to a minimum to allow for as minimal disruption to the babies as possible. 

Initially, seeing all of the medical equipment used to treat your baby can be very overwhelming. The noises, beeps, clicks, alarms and flashing lights coming from the machines will seem strange at first, but over time you will become familiar with the equipment and learn how each machine is helping. The staff will be happy to explain any equipment to you. Some examples of the equipment often seen in the NICU are as follows:

  • C-PAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure): Many premature babies need help with their breathing. Delivering oxygen under pressure helps keep the lungs expanded and reduces the amount of effort it takes for your baby to breathe. 
  • Humidicrib: Also known as an incubator or isolette, this is a clear plastic box that provides a warm, controlled, clean, enclosed environment where the baby can be easily observed. It helps protect the baby from infection and excess handling and prevents them from using vital energy/calories to keep warm.

As the parent of a NICU baby, it can be an overwhelming experience to watch the process and amount of care that is required for the best outcome for your baby. You may also, though, be feeling relief and gratitude for the medical technology and highly skilled staff working for your baby’s development. For this to exist, research happens in NICUs across Australia and around the world and you and your baby may be invited to participate in one or more trials.

Miracle Babies is here for you. If you did not receive a Miracle Babies NICU Survival Pack, ask your Hospital staff if they have these. You can also request one here: NICU Survival Pack – Miracle Babies. The NICU Survival Pack includes the Nurture Guide Book along with other items to support you in coping with your NICU experience. 

Visit www.miraclebabies.org.au for more information and support services.

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