Common conditions treated in the NICU

Premature babies and other very sick newborns face some of the same medical issues. Listed below are some medical conditions that may be seen in the NICU.

The conditions listed may not be relevant to your baby's situation. We encourage you to read only what you feel would be helpful to you and your child's particular circumstances.

To find out more information about specific conditions, ask our health experts.

Additional information and support for families with babies in the NICU can be found at Share Your Story, the March of Dimes Web site for NICU families.

Anemia


Premature babies are often anemic. This means that they do not have enough red blood cells. Normally, the fetus stores iron during the latter months of pregnancy and uses it after birth to make red blood cells. Infants born too soon may not have had enough time to store iron. Loss of blood from frequent blood tests also can contribute to anemia. Anemic infants may be treated with dietary iron supplements, drugs that increase red blood cell production or, in some cases, a blood transfusion.

Breathing problems


Premature babies often have breathing problems because their lungs are not fully developed. Full-term babies also can develop breathing problems due to complications of labor and delivery, birth defects and infections. An infant with breathing problems may be given medicines, a mechanical ventilator to help him breathe, or a combination of these two treatments.

Apnea: Premature babies sometimes do not breathe regularly. A baby may take a long breath, then a short one, then pause for 5 to 10 seconds before starting to breathe normally. This is called periodic breathing. It usually is not harmful, and the baby will outgrow it.

Premature and sick babies also may stop breathing for 15 to 20 seconds or more. This interruption in breathing is called apnea. It may be accompanied by a slow heart rate called bradycardia. Babies in the NICU are constantly monitored for apnea and bradycardia (often called “A's and B's”).

Sensors on the baby's chest send information about his breathing and heart rate to a machine located near the incubator. If a baby stops breathing, an alarm will begin beeping. A nurse will stimulate the baby to start breathing by patting him or touching the soles of his feet. The neonatologist might consider giving the baby medicine or using equipment, such as C-PAP (continuous positive airway pressure; delivery of air to a baby's lungs through either small tubes in the baby's nose or through a tube inserted into the windpipe).

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD): This chronic lung disease is most common in premature babies who have been treated for respiratory distress syndromre (RDS) (see below). Babies with RDS have immature lungs. They sometimes need a mechanical ventilator to help them breathe. Some babies treated for RDS may develop symptoms of BPD, including fluid in the lungs, scarring and lung damage.

Babies with BPD are treated with medications to help make breathing easier. They are slowly weaned from the mechanical ventilator. Their lungs usually improve over the first two years of life. But some children develop a chronic lung disease resembling asthma. BPD also occasionally occurs in full-term newborns after they have had pneumonia or other infections.

Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN): Babies with PPHN cannot breathe properly because they have high blood pressure in their lungs. At birth, in response to the first minutes of breathing air, the blood vessels in the lungs normally relax and allow blood to flow through them. This is how the blood picks up oxygen. In babies with PPHN, this response does not occur. This leads to a lack of oxygen in the blood, and sometimes to other complications including brain damage. Babies with PPHN often have birth defects (such as heart defects) or have suffered from birth complications.

Babies with PPHN often need a mechanical ventilator to help them breathe. They may be given a gas called nitric oxide through a tube in the windpipe. This treatment may help the blood vessels in the lungs to relax and improve breathing.

Pneumonia: This lung infection is common in premature and other sick newborns. A baby's doctors may suspect pneumonia if the baby has difficulty breathing, if her rate of breathing changes, or if the baby has an increased number of apnea episodes.

The doctor will listen to the baby's lungs with a stethoscope and then do an X-ray to see if there is excess fluid in the lungs. Sometimes the doctor may insert a tube into the lungs to take a sample of the lung fluid. The fluid is then tested to see what type of bacterium or virus is causing the infection, so that the doctor can choose the most effective drug to treat it. Babies with pneumonia are generally treated with antibiotics. They also may need additional oxygen until the infection clears up.

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS): Babies born before 34 weeks of pregnancy often develop this serious breathing problem. RDS is sometimes called hyaline membrane disease. Babies with RDS lack a chemical mixture called surfactant, which keeps the small air sacs in the lungs from collapsing. Treatment with surfactant helps affected babies breathe more easily.

Babies with RDS also may receive a treatment called C-PAP (continuous positive airway pressure). The air may be delivered through small tubes in the baby's nose, or through a tube that has been inserted into his windpipe. As with surfactant treatment, C-PAP helps keep small air sacs from collapsing. C-PAP helps your baby breathe, but does not breathe for him. The sickest babies may temporarily need the help of a mechanical ventilator to breathe for them while their lungs recover.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): If your baby was premature, you may be advised to get your baby immunized against respiratory syncytial virus. RSV is a common virus that affects virtually all children before the age of 2. Many babies get only a slight cold from RSV. But RSV can be more serious.

Babies who were born prematurely, or who have heart or lung problems, may benefit from medication that helps prevent a severe RSV infection. This medication is called palivizumab (Synagis). It is given in monthly shots usually from fall through spring. Ask your baby's health care provider if your baby should receive this medication.

Congenital heart defects


These heart defects are present at birth. They originate in the early part of pregnancy when the heart is forming.

Coarctation of the aorta: The aorta is the large artery that sends blood from the heart to the rest of the body. In this condition, the aorta may be too narrow for the blood to flow evenly. A surgeon can cut away the narrow part and sew the open ends together, replace the constricted section with man-made material, or patch it with part of a blood vessel taken from elsewhere in the body. Sometimes, this narrowed area can be widened by inflating a balloon on the tip of a catheter inserted through an artery.

Heart valve abnormalities: Some babies are born with heart valves that are narrowed, closed or blocked and prevent blood from flowing smoothly. Some babies may require placement of a shunt (artificial graft) to allow blood to bypass the blockage until the baby is big enough to have the valve repaired or replaced.

Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA): PDA is the most common heart problem in premature babies. Before birth, much of a fetus's blood goes through a passageway (ductus arteriosus) from one blood vessel to another, instead of through the lungs, because the lungs are not yet in use. This passageway should close soon after birth, so the blood can take the normal route from heart to lungs and back. If it doesn't close, blood doesn't flow correctly. In some cases, drug treatment can help close the passageway. If that doesn't work, surgery can also close it.

Septal defects: A septal defect refers to a hole in the wall (septum) that divides the two upper or lower chambers of the heart. Because of this hole, the blood cannot circulate as it should, and the heart has to work extra hard. A surgeon can close the hole by sewing or patching it. Small holes may heal by themselves and not need repair at all.

Tetralogy of Fallot: In this condition, a combination of four heart defects keeps some blood from getting to the lungs. As a result, the baby has episodes of cyanosis (the skin looks blue due to lack of oxygen) and may grow poorly. New surgical techniques allow early repair of this complex heart defect.

Transposition of the great arteries: Here, the positions of the two major arteries leaving the heart are reversed. Each artery arises from the wrong pumping chamber. Surgical advances have enabled correction of this defect in the newborn period.

Feeding


Experts agree that breast milk provides many wonderful and vital health benefits for newborns, especially premature or sick babies. And it is something only a mom can give her baby. A baby needs good nutrition to grow and become stronger. But she may need to be fed a different way for a while, before she is ready for breast or bottle.

Babies who are very small or sick are often fed intravenously (through a vein). A tiny needle is placed in a vein in the baby's hand, foot, scalp or belly button. She will receive sugar (glucose) and essential nutrients through the vein. As soon as she is strong enough, the baby will be fed breast milk or formula through a tube that is placed through the nose or mouth into the stomach or intestines. This is called gavage feeding.

In gavage feeding, the tube may be left in place or inserted at each feeding. Inserting the tube should not bother the baby too much because babies this small generally do not gag. When the baby can suck and swallow effectively, gavage feedings will be stopped, and the baby will be able to breast or bottle-feed.

Many babies in NICUs start trophic (minimal) feeds shortly after birth. This is done to stimulate the baby's intestine until the baby is strong enough to tolerate larger feedings.

Hypoglycemia


Hypoglycemia is low blood sugar (glucose). It is usually diagnosed in a baby shortly after birth. Babies born to mothers with diabetes have their glucose levels checked regularly to assess for hypoglycemia. Early feeding and an intravenous glucose solution help to prevent and treat hypoglycemia.

Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IUGR)


A baby with this condition grows more slowly than usual in utero, and is smaller than normal for his gestational age at birth. IUGR is ordinarily diagnosed during pregnancy through an ultrasound. It usually is due to fetal or maternal complications. Upon admission to the NICU, babies are tested to determine possible causes, although this can't always be determined.

Intraventricular Hemorrhage (IVH)


IVH refers to bleeding in the brain and is most common in the smallest premature babies (those weighing less than 3 1/3 pounds). The bleeds usually occur in the first four days of life. Bleeding generally occurs near the fluid-filled spaces (ventricles) in the center of the brain. An ultrasound examination can show whether a baby has had a brain bleed and how severe it is.

Brain bleeds usually are given a number from 1 to 4, with 4 being the most severe. Most brain bleeds are mild (grades 1 and 2) and resolve themselves with no or few lasting problems. More severe bleeds can cause difficulties for the baby during the hospitalization and possible problems in the future. Some will require careful monitoring of the baby's development throughout infancy and childhood.

Jaundice


Babies with jaundice have a yellowish color to their skin and eyes. Jaundice occurs when the liver is too immature or sick to remove a waste product called bilirubin from the blood. Bilirubin is formed when old red blood cells break down. Jaundice is especially common in premature babies and in babies who have blood type incompatibilities with their mothers (such as Rh disease, ABO incompatibility or G6PD disease)

Jaundice itself does not usually cause harm to a baby. But if the bilirubin level gets too high, it can cause more serious problems. For this reason, the baby's bilirubin level is checked frequently. If it gets too high, he is treated with special blue lights (phototherapy) that help the body break down and eliminate bilirubin.

Occasionally, a baby will need a special type of blood transfusion called an exchange transfusion to reduce very high bilirubin levels. In this procedure, some of the baby's blood is removed and replaced with blood from a donor.

Keeping warm


Babies who are born too small and too soon often have trouble controlling their body temperature. Unlike healthy, full-term babies, they don't have enough body fat to prevent the loss of heat from their bodies. Babies in the NICU are placed in an incubator or warmer right after birth to help control their temperature. A tiny thermometer taped to the baby's stomach senses her body temperature and regulates the heat in the incubator. A baby will grow faster if she maintains a normal body temperature (98.6 degrees F.).

Macrosomia


A condition in which a baby is born with excessive birth weight, that is, 4,500 grams (9 pounds, 14 ounces) or more. This is commonly due to maternal diabetes and may require delivery by cesarean section. These babies are also monitored for hypoglycemia.

Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)


This potentially dangerous intestinal problem most commonly affects premature babies. The bowel may become damaged when its blood supply is decreased. Bacteria that are normally present in the bowel invade the damaged area, causing more damage. Babies with NEC develop feeding problems, abdominal swelling and other complications. If tests show that a baby has NEC, he will be fed intravenously while his bowel heals. Sometimes damaged sections of intestine must be surgically removed.

Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP)


ROP is an abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye. It occurs only in babies born before 32 weeks of pregnancy. ROP can lead to bleeding and scarring that can damage the eye's retina (the lining at the rear of the eye that relays messages to the brain). This can result in vision loss. An ophthalmologist (eye doctor) will examine the baby's eyes for signs of ROP.

Most mild cases heal without treatment, with little or no vision loss. In more severe cases, the ophthalmologist may perform laser therapy or do a procedure called cryotherapy (freezing) to eliminate abnormal blood vessels and scars. Both treatments help protect the retina.

Sepsis


Some babies are admitted to the NICU to determine if they have this potentially dangerous infection of the bloodstream. The infection is caused by a germ which the baby has had difficulty fighting off. Certain lab tests, cultures, and X-rays can help diagnose this condition. These tests may be recommended if your baby has symptoms such as temperature instability, high or low blood sugar levels, breathing problems or low blood pressure. The condition is treated with antibiotics, and the baby is monitored closely for an improvement in symptoms.

August 2009

Most common 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.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).