Demystifying the NICU
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is the hospital ward for newborns in need of critical care. Babies who are born weeks or months before they are fully developed can require extensive medical attention. For a new mom the NICU can be a very scary place. Equipping yourself with an understanding of what the NICU is and how it can help should your baby be assigned there, can help reduce this fear.
Shortly after you give birth, your baby will be put through a series of tests known as the Apgar test, this allows the doctor to know your baby's heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tone, color and reflex responses. It's often repeated after several minutes if scores are low or distress is detected. It isn't uncommon for premature infants to have low-test scores, due to the lungs and heart not being fully developed.
There are many reasons for a newborn to be admitted to the NICU. Children who inhale amniotic fluid or meconium into the lungs are frequently placed in the NICU for monitoring, more as a precaution than a necessity. The NICU is staffed with a lower nurse-to-infant ratio.
In addition to more nurses per infant in the NICU, they're also equipped with all the necessary monitors and hi-tech equipment needed for each (at-risk) newborn's specific needs. In most hospitals, should your child need it, the NICU may become like a second home to you. Your baby needs you close even though you may not always be able to hold them. They can hear your voice and feel your gentle touch. Many of the babies admitted to the NICU are very fragile and very susceptible to germs. The sight of some of the infants can be frightening to a new mom who has a heightened state of anxiety over her own child's health. Generally there will be several babies kept in the same room with their mothers, fathers, and other staff in attendance. It's usually quiet with low light and some monitoring equipment noise.
A pediatric doctor called a neonatalogist cares for your baby, along with your regular physician and a staff of nurses specifically trained for this unit. The staff of the NICU work closely with parents and doctors to keep everyone informed on the status of each infant. The nurses quickly become a valuable support team for the parents of the babies in the NICU.
These nurses regularly receive gifts, photos, and frequent updates from past parents grateful for the care their child received in the NICU. Many NICUs hold yearly reunions for their "graduates," where the children and families get together, supporting one another by sharing information and resources. Their experiences are a comfort to others who may be experiencing anxiety over the possibility of having a child assigned to the NICU. A high rate of success in the NICU is a prized statistic for any hospital. How a hospital is able to care for it's most fragile patients is usually a benchmark for how patient care in general is at a particular hospital.
Once your baby has met the criteria to be discharged from the NICU, your doctor will notify you. You can then begin planning your baby's homecoming. There is clearly no better place for your baby to be if specialized care is recommended than the NICU.