A Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a hospital unit which is dedicated to the care of very ill infants. Most commonly, an infant is sent to the NICU because he or she is premature, and prone to an assortment of health problems. Critically ill infants may also spend time in the NICU until they are stabilized, at which point they can be moved into more general nurseries or sent home. For parents, the NICU can be a very intimidating and scary place, but parents should be confident that their infants are getting the best of care when they are sent to the NICU.
Infants face a variety of unique health problems which do not affect adults, especially when they are premature. Premature infants may have trouble with breathing, swallowing, or other basic reflexes because they are not fully developed. They are also extremely vulnerable to infections, even common infections which would not normally be harmful, even to more developed infants. The NICU environment is specially designed to deal with the needs of infants.
The adult corollary to a NICU is an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). In both cases, patients are cared for by dedicated staffs who have special training in intensive care. In a NICU, a flight of nurses works for the babies around the clock, along with specialists like respiratory therapists and surgeons. Doctors can choose to specialize in neonatology, the care of very young and sick infants, in which case they are known as neonatologists; a NICU often has several of these specialized doctors on staff.
While in a NICU, babies are typically kept in enclosed incubators with warming pads. They are attached to an assortment of monitors which keep track of their health, and they may also be attached to ventilators, feeding tubes, and other devices to help them survive. Access to the NICU is closely controlled and the environment is kept meticulously clean. Parents are usually welcome during certain times, and parent-infant contact is recognized in most regions as an important aspect of critical care for infants.
You may also hear a NICU referred to as a Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU), or a natal ICU. Generally, when a baby is sent to the NICU, a nurse on staff is assigned to the family; in addition to caring for the infant, he or she also keeps family members updated on the infant's condition. Many hospitals provide extensive support programs for parents with infants in the NICU, recognizing that the situation can be very intense for new parents, especially with severely ill infants which are whisked away at birth before the parents even get to interact with them.