In the Hospital - a quick look

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For some parents of preemie babies, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU for short) becomes a home away from home while they wait for their preemie baby to get strong enough to leave.


The NICU is where your preemie baby will get lots of help.

It can be noisy, confronting, and stressful. Learning a little about the equipment, what health professionals are doing, and some of the medical jargon can help parents of preemie babies feel more confident and less overwhelmed.
Preemie help is here to make sense of it all.


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Neonatal Intensive Care - NICU

When a baby is born too soon his/her body is underdeveloped and can be very fragile. As a result, preterm babies often need specialist care, in a Neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU for short.

Other terms for the NICU, depending on the country and hospital include, special care baby unit, (SCBU – United Kingdom), intensive care nursery (ICN), special care unit (SCN), and newborn intensive care unit.

What is a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit?

The NICU is a highly technical and specialised unit in a hospital that provides medical and nursing care and support. The medical and nursing staff use the latest advances in medical technology, to help sick and/or high-risk preterm babies.

The length of time your preterm baby will be in the neonatal intensive care unit will depend on how early and small he/she was born and on how unwell they are. It is not always easy to predict how long a baby must stay in the neonatal intensive care unit but most preterm babies stay in the NICU until their due date. So if your preterm baby was born 8 weeks too early, you should expect your baby will be in neonatal care for eight weeks. Because preterm babies have underdeveloped bodies they must learn to breathe by themselves and grow before it is safe to go home, although sometimes babies will be sent home with oxygen if they are coping well in general. The neonatal intensive care unit can become like a second home for families of preterm babies; parents spend many hours each day with their babies.

Levels of Neonatal Care

In Australia, the level of neonatal care required is structured into 3 levels. Your preterm baby might be transferred between levels of care depending on how they are progressing. If you are confused as to why your preterm baby is being moved, don’t be afraid to ask.

Neonatal Level 1

  • Is a neonatal nursery for uncomplicated pregnancies and relatively well infants without complications
    • Gestational age of 37 weeks or more
    • Birth weight of 2,500 grams or more
  • Undertake observation or some special treatment, such as phototherapy for jaundice
  • Manage infant care and consult with, or organise transfer to, higher levels of care
  • Provide emergency resuscitation and stabilisation
  • Assist with simple ways to progress your babies health, such as establishing feeding

Neonatal Level 2

  • Are nurseries for infants who are unwell or who are requiring more involved medical treatments
    • Gestational age of 34 weeks or greater
    • Majority are born between 35 and 36 weeks gestational age
    • Birth weight 2,000 grams or more, including preterm babies and recovering infants
  • Infants may require incubator care for short term problems and mild complications
    • Oxygen requirement (not greater than 40%)
    • Monitoring for apnea and blood glucose
    • Intravenous therapy
    • Phototherapy
    • Gavage feeding (i.e. feeding with a tube)

Neonatal Level 3

  • Are nurseries for very sick and very preterm babies requiring neonatal intensive care
  • Provide all of the above plus;
    • Continued assisted ventilation
    • Require oxygen therapy (more than 60%) for more than 4 hours
    • Tracheostomies requiring IPPV or CPAP
    • Require an arterial line (thin catheter inserted into the artery) for continuing blood pressure monitoring
    • Babies who are having frequent seizures
    • Babies undergoing major surgery or recovering from surgery
    • Babies undergoing tracheostomy
    • Babies who need one-to-one nursing care)
  • Care usually includes ventilation and careful monitoring of heart rate, oxygen, and temperature

Extra Research: Neonatal Intensive Care

Approximately 40,000 infants are admitted to special and intensive care nurseries each year in Australia and of these around 21,000 are born preterm. Additionally, in 2005 6,044 infants were admitted to level 3 neonatal intensive care, of which 78.0% were preterm babies and 70.7% were low birth weight.

(Laws, Abeywardana, Walker, & Sullivan, 2007)


Technical References

Laws, P., Abeywardana, S., Walker, J., & Sullivan, E. (2007). Australia's mothers and babies 2005 (No. 13). Sydney, Australia: AIHW National Perinatal Statistics Unit.



AlbertEinstein_iconOne of the greatest minds in history, Albert Einstein was born preterm.

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Preemie, Premmie, or Prem?

Most babies spend between 38 and 42 weeks in their mother’s uterus. So, technically a preterm birth, preemie, premmie, or prem, is an infant who is born less than 37 completed gestational weeks. 

Read More: Defining Preterm birth



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