What is a NICU and Why They Are Needed

Congenital heart defects. Premature births. Anemia. Pneumonia. Brain bleeding.

These are just some of the conditions that can land a newborn in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Premature and critically ill infants often begin their lives in a NICU, spending days, weeks or even months in this specialized medical environment – depending on the severity of their condition.

Specially trained neonatal doctors and nurses work closely with other specialists to care for infants in need of emergency surgery, those who are critically ill or those born prematurely with a birth weight of less than 5½ pounds. The extended team may include pediatric surgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons; pediatric cardiologists; respiratory therapists, physical therapists and other supportive services like pharmacy and nutrition.

Premature babies and other very sick newborns face a number of medical issues, including:

Breathing problems. In premature infants, breathing difficulties are often experienced because their lungs aren't fully developed. Full-term newborns may have respiratory issues due to complications of labor and delivery, birth defects and infections. In the NICU, babies are constantly monitored for both lung function and blood oxygen levels.

Failure to thrive. A complex set of circumstances under which the baby doesn’t grow and gain weight normally. A NICU is equipped find out why and to provide the care needed to increase the baby’s chances of a normal growth pattern.

Immature organ systems. Babies born before 37 weeks gestation, may have medical problems simply because their major organ systems are not quite ready to function outside of the womb. In the NICU, neonatal experts in specialties including gastroenterology, cardiology, pulmonology and urology are readily available to address any issues that may arise.

Neurological problems. Some babies, both premature and full-term are born with conditions that require specialized neurological monitoring and treatment, including seizures, developmental delay and movement disorders like cerebral palsy, dystonia and spasticity. Pediatric neurologists in the NICU are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of these conditions.

Newborns requiring surgery. Neonatal surgery is a very specialized form of hospital care. NICUs are staffed and equipped to handle precise and delicate newborn surgical interventions.

Regardless of their medical problems, it is a known fact that babies heal faster and are more likely to thrive when they are given the opportunity for close and frequent contact with their parents. The Quentin & Elisabeth Alexander Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital was designed with this in mind. In our NICU, family members may stay close to the baby 24/7 in an environment that promotes both healing and bonding.

The Quentin & Elisabeth Alexander Neonatal Intensive Care Unit opened in 2009 and is considered a model for future NICUs around the country and the world.

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