NICU reference guide

ABO incompatibility: Blood incompatibility between the mother and fetus that can result in destruction of fetal red blood cells, jaundice, and anemia.

Anemia: Fewer red blood cells than normal levels.

Apnea: Interruption in breathing that lasts 15 seconds or more.

Apnea monitor: Machine that detects interruptions in breathing.

Arteries: Blood vessels that carry oxygen to all parts of the body.

Asphyxia: Lack of oxygen.

Bililights: Blue fluorescent lights used to treat jaundice.

Bilirubin: A yellowish waste product formed when red blood cells break down.

Birth defect: Abnormality of structure, function or body metabolism (inborn error of body chemistry) present at birth that results in physical and/or mental disability, or is fatal.

Blood gases: Levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.

Bradycardia: Slow heart rate.

Brainstem auditory evoked response test: Hearing test for newborns.

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD): Lung damage and scarring that occurs in some babies who were treated with oxygen and mechanical ventilation for a prolonged period.

Cardiopulmonary monitor: Machine that tracks heart and breathing rates.

Catheter: A small, thin plastic tube through which fluids are given or removed from the body.

Central line: A small plastic tube that is placed in a large blood vessel near the heart, to deliver intravenous feedings and medications. A central line can avoid many needle sticks for a baby, when long-term care is needed.

Cerebral palsy: A group of conditions that affect control of movement and posture, often leading to problems with muscle strength, flexibility or movement.

Chickenpox (varicella): Common childhood illness characterized by an itchy rash and fever. When contracted by a pregnant woman, it can occasionally cause birth defects or severe newborn illness.

Computed tomography (CT or CAT scan): Imaging technique that produces precise pictures of tissue using a narrow beam of radiation and computers.

Congenital diaphragmatic hernia: Birth defect involving an opening in the diaphragm, the large muscle that separates the chest and abdomen. Abdominal organs, such as the stomach and intestines, can move through the opening into the chest, where they can crowd the lungs and interfere with their development.

C-PAP (continuous positive airway pressure): Air is delivered to a baby's lungs through either 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.

Cryotherapy: Freezing of abnormal tissue to halt its growth. This form of treatment can be used in severe cases of retinopathy of prematurity.

Cyanosis: A blue or gray discoloration of the skin caused by insufficient oxygen.

Cytomegalovirus: A viral infection that, when contracted by a pregnant woman, can result in severe newborn illness, and sometimes lead to chronic disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, vision and hearing loss.

Echocardiogram: A specialized form of ultrasound examination that is used to study the heart.

Endotracheal tube: Small plastic tube that is inserted through a baby's nose or mouth down into the trachea (windpipe), usually connected to a mechanical ventilator.

Exchange transfusion: Special type of blood transfusion in which some of the baby's blood is removed and replaced with blood from a donor; sometimes used to treat severe jaundice.

Gastroschisis: Birth defect involving an opening in the abdominal wall, through which the abdominal organs bulge out.

Gastrostomy: Surgically created opening in the stomach, through which a baby can be fed.

Gavage feeding: Feeding through a flexible tube placed through the nose or mouth to the stomach or intestines.

Group B streptococcus: Bacterial infection that a baby can contract as he passes through an infected birth canal, sometimes resulting in further illness. Many cases can be prevented by screening and/or treating infected women with antibiotics during labor and delivery.

Heart failure: When the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body's needs.

Herpes simplex: Virus that can be transmitted sexually, sometimes causing genital sores in infected adults. A baby may become infected passing through an infected birth canal, sometimes resulting in severe newborn illness or future medical problems.

High-frequency ventilation: Special form of mechanical ventilation, designed to help reduce complications to delicate lungs.

Hyperglycemia: High blood sugar levels.

Hypoglycemia: Low blood sugar levels.

Incubator: Babies are placed in this clear plastic box which keeps them warm and protects them from germs and noise.

Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR): Term for babies who are smaller than they should be at their gestational age.

Intravenous: Through a vein.

Intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH): Bleeding in the brain, which occurs mainly in premature babies.

Jaundice: Yellowing of the skin and eyes due to accumulation of a waste product called bilirubin in the blood.

Kangaroo care: Holding a baby with skin-to-skin contact.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Imaging technique that uses powerful magnets and computers to produce a detailed picture of tissue.

Mechanical ventilation: Using a mechanical ventilator to breathe for a very sick baby while her lungs recover.

Meconium aspiration syndrome: Breathing problems that occur when the fetus inhales meconium (fetal stool) during labor and delivery. The stool usually is released shortly before or after birth.

Nasal cannula: Soft plastic tubing that goes around a baby's head and under his nose, where there are openings (prongs) to deliver oxygen.

Nasal prongs: Small plastic tubes that fit into or under a baby's nose to deliver oxygen.

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC): Serious intestinal infection that most commonly affects premature babies.

Neonatologist: A pediatrician with advanced training in the care of sick newborns.

NICU: Neonatal (or newborn) intensive care unit.

Nitric oxide: A gas naturally produced by the body that can be given to help expand blood vessels; sometimes used to treat babies with PPHN.

Ophthalmologist: Eye doctor.

Oxygen hood: Clear plastic box that fits over a baby's head and supplies oxygen.

Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA): Heart problem that is seen most commonly in premature babies.

Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN): High blood pressure in the lungs, leading to breathing problems, and reduced levels of oxygen in the blood.

Phototherapy: Treatment for jaundice, involving placing the baby under blue fluorescent lights, sometimes called bililights.

Pneumothorax: When air from the baby's lungs leaks out into the space between the baby's lungs and chest wall. While small leaks may cause no problems and require no treatment, larger leaks may cause serious complications such as lung collapse and may need surgical repair.

Premature baby: Baby born before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy.

Pulse oximeter: Small device that uses a light sensor to help determine blood oxygen levels.

Radiant warmer: Open bed with overhead heating source to warm the baby.

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS): Serious breathing problem affecting mainly premature babies.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): A virus that causes a mild, cold-like illness in adults. In premature babies or full-term babies with lung problems, it can cause serious illness, such as pneumonia.

Retina: Lining at the rear of the eye that relays messages to the brain.

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP): Eye disorder seen mainly in very premature babies, which can lead to vision loss or blindness.

Rh disease: Blood incompatibility between the mother and fetus that causes destruction of fetal red blood cells.

Sepsis: Widespread infection of the blood.

Spina bifida: Birth defect involving the spinal cord, resulting in varying degrees of paralysis, bladder and bowel problems. Affected babies may require surgery during the newborn period to close the back and prevent further nerve damage and infection; however, surgery cannot reverse nerve damage that already has occurred.

Step-down nursery: Intermediate level of care for babies who have graduated from the NICU.

Surfactant: Detergent-like substance that keeps small air sacs in the lungs from collapsing.

Syndrome: A combination of signs and symptoms that, when present together, are associated with a specific medical condition.

Tachycardia: Rapid heart rate.

Toxoplasmosis: A parasitic infection that, when contracted by a pregnant woman, can result in serious newborn illness and chronic disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, seizures, or vision and hearing loss.

Ultrasound: Imaging technique that uses sound waves to make a picture of tissue.

Umbilical catheter: Thin tube inserted into the belly button; used to draw blood or give fluids, medication, nutrients or blood.

Vein: A blood vessel leading toward the heart.

Ventilator, mechanical: Mechanical breathing machine.

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).