NICU: Procedures, Terms & Questions

Bringing a baby into the world is a miraculous process. The fact that our bodies can do it at all is nothing short of amazing! But sometimes, usually, through no-one’s fault, babies come early. And when they do, their fragile little systems might not be ready for the big wide world yet. For those babies, a stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)  is the best possible scenario, letting them go home when they are ready. 

Why might my preterm baby go to NICU?

Any baby born before 37 weeks gestation qualifies as preterm, but not all of those babies need to have a long stay in the NICU. In order to survive in the world outside of the womb, babies must be able to breathe air, digest food and process waste, beat their own heart, and manage their own immune systems. 

Depending on how early your baby is, they may be able to do some or none of those things. But no matter how long their stay in NICU — from a few days to a few months — the experience can be confusing and scary for parents. Here are a few terms to look out for so you can understand how your baby is being cared for.

NICU terms and what they mean

First up, the doctors, nurses, and therapists who handle these very fragile babies care for them deeply. This might make them a bit fierce, but it is because they have your baby’s needs at heart. Be gentle with yourself and with them, they are trying to create the very best-case scenario for your baby.

  • A's and B's: This is a slang term often used in the NICU. It refers to periods of apnea and bradycardia (slower breathing and slower heart rate)
  • Apnea: A pause in breathing that lasts more than twenty seconds. This is a common problem in premature infants and requires close monitoring and sometimes medication. 
  • Bradycardia (Brady): When the baby’s heart rate slows to less than about 80-100 beats per minute (depending on the size of the baby). A slow heart rate prevents oxygen from getting around adequately.
  • Bilirubin & Bili lights: A yellowish waste product made by the liver. When the liver isn’t processing correctly, it can make the skin yellow. To treat this, doctors put babies under blue fluorescent ‘Bili’ lights to help the levels come down, or they can be toxic.
  • Blood gas: This is a regular blood test that determines levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide and acid in the blood. These need to be in balance for baby to grow properly.
  • Chronological age: This is based on the day they were actually born.
  • Corrected age: This is based on their gestation, and takes into account their premature entry into the world. So a baby born 3 months early would, at 6 months chronological age, be considered just 3 months old, developmentally and gestationally. Additionally, premature babies quite often experience other delays, making their corrected age even more important to consider.
  • ET tube (Endotracheal Tube): This tube passes through either your baby’s mouth or nose and into the windpipe (the trachea) to allow oxygen into the lungs. Has nothing to do with aliens.
  • Gavage feedings (Tube Feedings or NG- Nasal Gastric Tube): Since tiny babies aren’t quite able to drink milk yet, this tube passes nutrition through a pipe into the stomach via the baby’s nose or mouth.

Ask, ask, ask

There are always more terms, procedures, and scary-looking things happening. The best advice we can give you is to ask your baby’s caregivers what they are doing. To them, this is second nature, but they will explain it to you if you ask what is happening. 

If you have questions your nurse can’t answer, try to be at your baby’s bedside during the rounds and ask the paediatrician and therapists to answer the questions you have. No-one is a better advocate for your baby than you are and all your questions are valid.