What is NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit)?

What is NICU?

Childbirth is wonderful yet complex. Numerous physical and emotional changes occur for mother and child alike after birth. Every newborn must make several physical adjustments a few days after birth. Once the baby is born, it can no longer rely on the mother’s blood supply and placenta to fulfill essential physical requirements.

For instance, a baby relies on the mother’s placenta before birth for oxygenation, nutrition, waste removal, and immune protection. Once the baby leaves the mother’s womb, it experiences a significant change in its environment.

After birth, a newborn needs proper lungs to breathe air, normal cardiac and pulmonary functions, and an improved digestive system to process food and excrete waste, among others. In short, the newborn’s body systems must work completely differently than the womb.

Sometimes, the newborn may have trouble transitioning from the mother’s womb to the real world. For example, if the baby is a pre-term birth, has had a difficult birth, or has birth defects, then they may find it more challenging to adapt to these changes. This is where the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) comes into the picture.

What is the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)?

Newborns requiring intensive medical care are placed in a specialized hospital ward known as the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU.

The NICU is equipped with advanced technology and medical equipment and staffed with trained medical professionals who can provide optimal care for small patients. NICUs primarily care for babies requiring specialized medical attention, including those with critical health conditions or those born prematurely. If a hospital does not have a NICU, the baby is usually transferred to another hospital with one.

On the other hand, some babies, such as premature or sick babies, are unexpected for most parents. The NICU experience can also be confusing and anxiety-inducing. However, parents need to understand that NICUs are designed especially to take care of weak and ill newborns most effectively.

Who Needs NICU

Most newborns admitted into a NICU are usually premature births, those born before the 37th week of pregnancy, or have low weight at birth (lower than 5.5 lbs.), or suffer from a health condition that needs special care.

According to numerous reports, almost half a million babies born yearly in the United States are premature, and many have low birth weights. Besides these, twins, triplets, and other multiple births are initially admitted to the NICU. This is because these babies often have lower birth weights and may face more health challenges than single-birth babies. In addition, babies who experience breathing problems, heart trouble, infections, and congenital defects are also admitted initially into a NICU.

Some of the factors that determine the risk faced by newborns and the need to admit them into a NICU are:

  • When the mother is younger than 16 or over 40 years old
  • When the mother has a history of alcohol or drug abuse
  • When the mother experiences bleeding during pregnancy
  • When the mother is suffering from diabetes
  • When the mother is suffering from a sexually transmitted disease
  • When the mother has multiple births
  • When there is excessive or insufficient amniotic fluid
  • When membranes (amniotic sac) burst prematurely
  • When the baby’s organ system is affected by a lack of oxygen
  • When the baby is born in an abnormal position (breech birth, etc.)
  • When the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck
  • When the doctor has to perform a cesarean delivery
  • When the baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy
  • When the baby’s weight at birth is less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces (2500 grams)
  • When the baby seems significantly small for gestational age
  • When the baby needs medicines or resuscitation in the delivery room
  • When the baby has an infection
  • When the baby suffers from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels)
  • When the baby suffers from seizures
  • When the baby needs extra oxygen or monitoring, medicines or IV
  • When the baby needs special treatment, such as a blood transfusion

Who Works at a NICU?

The NICU is staffed with specially-trained medical professionals and staff, which include:


A neonatologist is a pediatrician with specialized training in caring for sick and premature infants. They often serve as the primary attending physician in the NICU, overseeing the multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals.

Neonatal Fellow

A neonatal fellow is a doctor in advanced training specializing in neonatology, gaining experience in the intensive care of newborns. They may perform procedures and conduct the child’s care in the NICU.

Pediatric Resident

A pediatric resident is a doctor in training specializing in pediatrics, which includes gaining experience in neonatal care. They may perform procedures or assist in one to help improve the child’s health.

Neonatal Nurse Practitioner

A neonatal nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse who cares for newborns, particularly in the NICU. They can perform procedures or monitor the child’s care.

Respiratory Therapist

A respiratory therapist is a person with special training in respiratory support, such as managing breathing machines and oxygen supply.


A NICU also has physical, speech, and occupational therapists on board who work to ensure that the baby develops normally. These professionals can help with positioning and soothing techniques, etc.


A dietician in the NICU ensures that the baby is growing normally and receiving optimal nutrition in their diet. These professionals monitor the newborn’s calories, vitamins, proteins, and minerals intake.


Pharmacists at NICUs work to assist healthcare providers in choosing the best medicines for newborns. They also check the medicine doses and levels to ensure optimal medication is provided to unwell or weak newborns.

Social Workers

Besides healthcare and medical professionals, social workers can also work in NICUs. These are responsible for helping families cope with the anxiety and stress of an ill newborn child. In addition, they also provide emotional support and get information from healthcare providers so they can offer optimal support to the parents of a child admitted to a NICU.


The team of professionals in a NICU works with parents to form a care plan for high-risk newborn babies. To learn more about this, we recommend you to talk with the pediatrician or OB-GYN professional you are seeking healthcare services at the hospital of your choice.

See Also

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Can My Child Get Medicaid if I Have Insurance

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