Walking into a neonatal intensive care unit with all its machinery can be an alarming experience. Knowing more about the equipment in the NICU will help ease your discomfort as you appreciate the technology that helps support your little one. This alphabetized equipment list is designed to do just that.
And for more information to help familiarize you with the NICU, be sure to click on the related guides that cover staff, tests, and common problems.
Apnea monitor: An instrument that checks for stoppages in breathing (apnea). Many premature babies have episodes of apnea. If your baby has not completely outgrown it, he may temporarily need a monitor in the NICU, step-down unit, or at home. Connected to your baby by a soft belt that goes around his chest, the monitor will sound an alarm if he stops breathing or if his heartbeat is too fast or too slow. You will have to use the monitor when your baby is sleeping or when you are not watching him.
Arterial line ("art line"): A plastic catheter most commonly placed in an artery in the baby's wrist, ankle, or umbilical cord to allow for frequent measurement of blood-gas balance and blood pressure.
Bililights: Bright blue fluorescent lights placed over or around a baby to treat jaundice. Babies with jaundice usually receive this treatment, called phototherapy, for three to seven days.
Blood pressure monitor: A machine connected to a small cuff wrapped around the baby's arm or leg. The cuff will automatically take your baby's blood pressure at regular times and display the numbers on a screen. The nurse may also take your baby's blood pressure manually.
Cardiopulmonary monitor: A device that tracks your baby's heart and breathing rates. Connected to your baby by small adhesive pads placed on her chest, it shows information on a display screen and can also print onto paper. Some machines have additional displays for blood pressure or blood-gas measurements. If your baby's heart or breathing rate becomes too fast or too slow, an alarm will sound. However, loose connections can lead to false alarms. Some infants will go home with a simplified model of this machine.
CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure): A process by which air is delivered to a baby's lungs either through small tubes in her nose or through a tube that has been inserted into her windpipe. The tubes are attached to a ventilator, which helps the baby breathe but does not breathe for her. This device prevents airway sacs from collapsing after each breath.
Central line An intravenous line usually inserted into a vein in the arm, and threaded from there into a larger vein close to the heart. It is used to deliver medicine or nutritional solutions that would irritate smaller veins. A percutaneous intravenous central catheter (PICC) is a type of central line that is placed in one of the major blood vessels. A Hickman® catheter or a Broviac® catheter, another type of central line, is inserted into the jugular vein in the neck.
Endotracheal (ET) tube: A small plastic tube inserted through a baby's nose or mouth down into the trachea (windpipe). When this is put in place, the baby is said to be intubated. The tube is attached to a ventilator (respirator), which can help a baby breathe (as in CPAP) or breathe for him. The machine delivers a specific gas mixture at a specific rate and pressure to the infant. When the need for respiratory support lessens, the ET tube will come out, whereupon the baby is said to be extubated.
ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenator): A machine that bypasses the lungs and performs gas exchange in the infant's blood until damage to his lungs or heart can heal or be repaired.
Feeding tube and syringe: Equipment that allows parents to perform gavage, or tube feeding, at home. Some babies are not able to take in enough food by mouth, including those with birth defects involving the heart, lungs, mouth, esophagus, or airway. So formula or breast milk is placed, via syringe, in a tube placed in the stomach through the mouth. If a baby will not be able to take in enough food by mouth for an extended period, she may need to be fed through an opening in her stomach (gastrostomy) to which a small plastic feeding tube has been attached.
Incubator or isolette: A clear plastic box that keeps babies warm and protects them from germs and some noise. When they are more mature and can maintain their body temperature better, infants are moved to an open plastic box, a bassinet without a cover.
Intravenous (IV) line: A tube carrying nutrients into a baby's vein. Most premature and sick babies cannot be fed immediately, so they must receive nutrients and fluids intravenously. A doctor or nurse will insert a very small needle or plastic tube into a fine vein in your baby's hand, foot, arm, leg, or scalp. The needle is taped in place and attached to a plastic tube that goes to an IV pump, often connected to a pole next to your baby's bed. Your baby also can receive medications and blood through the IV line.
Nasal cannula or nasal prongs: Small plastic tubes that fit into your baby's nostrils and deliver oxygen. They often are used in connection with CPAP treatment.
Nebulizer: A device attached to an ET tube or a mask to deliver vaporized fluids and medications to the baby's airway.
Oxygen: Babies generally are breathing on their own before they go home. But a few need additional oxygen for a while. The most common reason is a lung disorder called bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). If your baby requires oxygen, you will need an oxygen tank (there are several types) and nasal cannula that go around your baby's head. A home health nurse or respiratory therapist may visit on a regular basis to check on your baby. When the doctor decides your baby is breathing better, the amount of supplemental oxygen he receives will be gradually decreased, then discontinued.
Oxygen hood: A clear plastic box that fits over the baby's head and supplies her with oxygen-enriched air. This is used for infants who can breathe on their own but still need some extra oxygen.
Pulse oximeter: A small, U-shaped device that uses a light sensor to measure a baby's blood oxygen level and heart rate. This painless device, which is wrapped around your baby's toe or hand and secured with a stretchy bandage, allows for monitoring of blood oxygen without the need for frequent blood samples.
Radiant warmer (also called an open isolette): An open bed with an overhead heating source. A baby may be placed in a warmer instead of an incubator if he needs to be handled frequently, or while he is undergoing procedures in the NICU. A temperature sensor on the infant's skin allows the bed to adjust to his needs.
Umbilical catheter: Your baby's umbilical cord, with two arteries and one vein, allows access to her circulatory system for the first few days of life. A thin tube can be inserted into one of these arteries and threaded to the aorta. This is a UAC, or umbilical artery catheter. Through this catheter, doctors and nurses can painlessly draw blood without having to repeatedly stick the baby with needles. They can also use it to give her fluids, blood, nutrients, and medications. A small device can be attached to the catheter to continuously monitor your baby's blood pressure. The umbilical vein can also be used for infusion of fluids. This requires a UVC, or umbilical venous catheter.
Ventilator: A breathing machine (also called a respirator) that delivers warmed and humidified air to a baby's lungs. The sickest babies receive mechanical ventilation, meaning that the ventilator breathes for them while their lungs grow or recover. The air is delivered to the baby's lungs through an endotracheal tube. The amount of oxygen, air pressure, and number of breaths per minute can be regulated to meet each baby's needs. Those with serious breathing problems may be treated with a form of high-frequency ventilation, which delivers small amounts of air at a rapid rate. This treatment appears to help reduce complications (such as bronchopulmonary dysplasia) that can occur with mechanical ventilation.