Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) have complex machines and devices for the unique
needs of tiny babies. The NICU can be overwhelming to a new parent. Learning about
what to expect in the NICU can help ease your concerns.
Heart or cardiorespiratory monitor. This monitor displays a baby's heart and breathing rates and patterns on a screen.
Wires from the monitor are attached to adhesive patches on the skin of the baby's
chest and abdomen.
Blood pressure monitor. Blood pressure is measured using a small cuff placed around the baby's upper arm or
leg. Periodically, a blood pressure monitor pumps up the cuff and measures the level
of blood pressure. Some babies need continuous blood pressure monitoring. This can
be done using a small tube (catheter) in 1 of the baby's arteries.
Temperature. A temperature probe is placed on the baby's skin with an adhesive patch. A wire connects
the temperature probe to the overhead warmer (incubator) to help regulate the heat
needed to keep the baby warm.
Pulse oximeter. This machine measures the amount of oxygen in the baby's blood through the skin. A
tiny light is taped to the baby's foot or hand. A wire connects the light to the monitor
where it displays the oxygen saturation or "sat." This refers to the amount of hemoglobin
in the baby's red blood cells that is saturated with oxygen.
X-ray. Portable X-ray machines may be brought to the baby's bedside in the NICU. X-rays use
invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones,
and organs on film. X-rays are taken for many reasons including checking the placement
of catheters and other tubes, looking for signs of lung problems like respiratory
distress syndrome or pneumothorax, and checking for signs of bowel problems.
CT scan. A CT scan is a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and
computer technology to produce horizontal (axial) images of the body. A CT scan shows
detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs.
CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays. CT scans are sometimes done to assess
bleeding inside a baby's head. A CT scan is done in a special room and the baby may
need a sedative medicine so that the child will be motionless for the exam.
MRI. MRI is a procedure that uses a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed
images of organs and other tissues in the body. Like a CT scan, MRI is done in a special
area of the hospital. It is often done to examine a baby's brain stem, spinal cord,
and soft tissues. The baby will need a sedative medicine so that the child will lie
still for the exam.
Nasogastric tube or orogastric tube. These tubes are placed through the baby's nose or mouth into the stomach. The tube
is held in place with special tape. An X-ray is used to check the tube's placement.
Sometimes babies in the NICU can't eat on their own and are fed through these tubes.
Endotracheal tube (ET). This tube is placed through the baby's mouth or nose into the windpipe (trachea).
The ET tube is held in place with special tape and connects to a mechanical breathing
machine (ventilator) with flexible tubing. An X-ray is used to check the tube's placement.
When a baby has an ET tube, the child is unable to make sounds or cry.
Respirator or mechanical ventilator. This machine helps babies who can't breathe on their own or who need help taking bigger
breaths. High frequency ventilators give hundreds of very fast puffs of air to help
keep a baby's airways open. Ventilators can also give extra oxygen to the baby.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Through small tubes that fit into the baby's nostrils, called nasal CPAP, this machine
pushes a continuous flow of air to the airways to help keep tiny air passages in the
lungs open. CPAP can give extra oxygen as well. It may also be given through an ET
Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). This is a special treatment for babies with respiratory disease that does not respond
to maximum medical care. With ECMO, blood from the baby's vein is pumped through an
artificial lung where oxygen is added and carbon dioxide is removed. The blood is
then returned back to the baby. ECMO is only used in specialized NICUs.