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In the NICU

  • In the NICU, your baby gets special medical care.
  • Get to know the NICU staff who take care of your baby.
  • Ask questions and get involved in your baby's care.
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Common NICU equipment

The NICU contains many machines and other types of equipment used to care for sick babies with many different problems. These machines seem less intimidating when you understand how they can help your baby. This article introduces you to some of the equipment you will see. Your baby may also be treated with other specialized machines during her NICU stay.


The bright blue lights placed over the baby's incubator are used to treat jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes). Babies with jaundice usually receive the "phototherapy" treatment for three to seven days.

Blood pressure monitor

A machine connected to a small blood pressure cuff wrapped around a baby's arm or leg. The cuff automatically takes the baby's blood pressure at regular times and displays the numbers on a screen.

Cardiopulmonary monitor

A machine that tracks the baby's heart and breathing rates. It is connected to the baby by small adhesive monitoring pads placed on her chest. The monitor displays information on the screen, which can be printed onto paper. If the baby's heart or breathing rate becomes too fast or too slow, an alarm will sound.

Central line

A small plastic tube that is placed in a large blood vessel. Babies get medicine and fluids through this tube. Also, doctors can draw blood through the tube. A PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line is a type of central line, which is placed in one of the major blood vessels. 

C-PAP (continuous positive airway pressure)

Air is delivered to a baby's lungs either through small tubes in the baby's nose or through a tube that has been inserted into her windpipe. The tubes are attached to a mechanical ventilator, which helps the baby breathe, but does not breathe for her.

Endotracheal tube

A small plastic tube, which is inserted through a baby's nose or mouth down into the trachea (windpipe). The tube is attached to a mechanical ventilator, which can either help a baby breathe (as in C-PAP) or breathe for him.


Babies are placed in this clear plastic bed, which keeps them warm and protects them from germs and noise.

Intravenous line

Most premature and sick babies cannot be fed immediately, so they must receive nutrients and fluids intravenously (through a vein). A doctor or nurse will insert a very small needle or tube into a tiny vein in the baby's hand, foot, arm, leg or scalp. The needle is taped in place, and attached to a thin plastic tube (IV line). The tube goes to an IV pump connected to a pole next to a baby's bed. The baby also can receive medications and blood through the IV line.

Mechanical ventilator

A mechanical ventilator is a breathing machine that delivers warmed and humidified air to a baby's lungs. The sickest babies receive mechanical ventilation, meaning that the mechanical ventilator temporarily breathes for them while their lungs recover. The air is delivered to the baby's lungs through an endotracheal tube (a small plastic tube that is inserted through a baby's nose or mouth down into the windpipe). The amount of oxygen, air pressure and number of breaths per minute can be regulated to meet each baby's needs.

Nasal cannula or nasal prongs

Small plastic tubes that fit into a baby's nostrils and deliver oxygen. They often are used with a treatment called continuous positive airway pressure (C-PAP), which uses a mechanical ventilator to deliver pressurized air to the baby's lungs.

Oxygen hood

A clear plastic box that fits over the baby's head and supplies him with oxygen. This is used for babies who can breathe on their own, but still need some extra oxygen.

Pulse oximeter

A small device that is wrapped around a baby's foot or hand and secured with a stretchy bandage. It uses a light sensor to help determine if the baby has enough oxygen in her blood. This sensor does not hurt the baby at all. It helps doctors and nurses determine whether she needs more or less oxygen.

Radiant warmer

An open bed with an overhead heating source that provides heat to a baby. A warmer may be used instead of an incubator if the baby needs to be handled frequently.


See mechanical ventilator.

Umbilical catheter

A baby's umbilical cord has two arteries and one vein, which end in his belly button. A thin tube (catheter) can be inserted into one of these vessels and threaded to the aorta, the largest artery supplying oxygen to the body. Through this catheter, doctors and nurses can painlessly draw blood. They don't have to repeatedly stick the baby with needles. They can give him fluids, blood, nutrients and medications through this tube. A small device can be attached to the catheter to continuously monitor the baby's blood pressure.


Children's Medical Ventures: A major provider of developmentally supportive products for premature babies, healthy newborns and older hospitalized infants. The company offers high quality products and education programs, which promote developmental care of all babies.

See also: Share your story

Last reviewed August 2014 

On your baby's team

Confused about all the people caring for your baby in the NICU? Find out who's who.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it OK to hold my baby in the NICU?

It depends on your baby's health overall. Some newborn intensive care units (NICUs) will encourage you to hold your baby from birth onward. Other NICUs will want you to wait until your baby's health is stable. Ask your NICU staff about its policy on kangaroo care (holding your baby on your bare chest). Kangaroo care has benefits for both you and your baby. The skin-to-skin contact is a precious way to be close to your baby. You may be afraid you'll hurt him by holding him. But you won't. Your baby knows your scent, touch and the rhythms of your speech and breathing, and he’ll enjoy feeling that closeness with you.

My baby was born full term. Why is she in the NICU?

Not all newborn intensive care unit (NICU) babies are born premature. Some babies, even those born full term, may need special care. Your baby may need to spend some time in the NICU if she had a difficult delivery, has breathing problems, has infections or has birth defects.

Most babies leave the NICU just fine. Others may need more special care once they're home.

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