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NICU Equipment and Procedures


Updated April 09, 2014

Kolbe, a preemie in the NICU.

Kolbe, a preemie in the NICU.

Image © Jeff Frankus

Equipment in the NICU

Perhaps the most intimidating part of having a baby in the NICU is all of the unfamiliar equipment and procedures in the neonatal intensive care unit. Seeing your baby hooked up to machines and covered with wires can be scary, but the equipment is all there to help your baby get well.

Monitoring equipment

Infants in special care nurseries are continuously monitored to make sure they are healthy. Monitors commonly used include:
  • Cardiac monitors: These use stickers on the chest connected to wires (called leads) that hook up to a monitor to make sure that baby's heart is beating at the correct speed and with the correct rhythm.
  • Respiratory monitors: Often part of the cardiac monitors, these use leads to monitor baby's breathing rate and pattern.
  • Pulse oximeters: These wrap around your baby's wrist or foot and have a red light that monitors the amount of oxygen in the blood.

IV Equipment

You may be familiar with IVs, or thin tubes that go into the veins to allow staff to infuse fluids or medicines directly into the veins. As part of regular NICU procedures, babies in the NICU may have several types of IV lines.
  • Peripheral IVs: These are the "regular" IVs that go into a vein for medications or fluids. Peripheral IVs may be in the feet, hands, arms, or scalps of premature babies. Although scalp IVs look scary to parents, they are very common in the NICU since premature babies don't always have good veins for IVs in their hands and feet.
  • PICC lines: Percutaneously inserted central catheters, or PICC lines for short, look like regular IVs. They have longer catheters, or tubes, than regular IVs, and travel through the vein into the large veins that empty into the heart. Insertion of these lines is one of the procedures NICU babies commonly undergo.
  • Umbilical catheters: These are inserted into the umbilical cord stump and travel to the large veins and arteries near the heart. Umbilical lines may be inserted into an artery in the umbilical cord, a vein in the umbilical cord, or both, to allow fluid and medication administration, blood pressure monitoring, painless blood sampling, and other procedures.

Respiratory equipment

Infants in the NICU may need help to breathe or to keep their blood oxygenated. Respiratory equipment in the NICU may include:
  • Nasal cannulas: A nasal cannula is a set of small nasal prongs may provide a higher concentration of oxygen than room air. They may also deliver room air at a higher flow, which helps to keep airways open and encourage babies to breathe on their own.
  • CPAP: Continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, is a mask or a special set of nasal prongs placed firmly on baby's nose to constantly blow air. The constant pressure encourages open airways and reminds babies to breathe, and higher concentrations of oxygen may be used.
  • Ventilators: If a baby is put on a ventilator, then procedure called intubation will be used to place a special tube called an endotracheal tube in the airway through the mouth or nose. The ventilator, or respirator, is the machine that delivers breaths to babies who cannot breathe on their own or who don't breathe well.
  • ECMO: Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation is a highly specialized procedure to oxygenate baby's blood. ECMO is used only in very sick babies at highly advanced NICUs. With ECMO, the baby's blood is pumped out of the body so that oxygen can be added and carbon dioxide removed. The blood is then returned to the body.

Other equipment

While in the NICU, your baby may require additional equipment as well.
  • Feeding tubes: A feeding tube travels from the mouth (orogastric- called OG) or from the nose (nasogastric- called NG) to the stomach. Infants who are too sick or weak to eat from the breast or from a bottle receive food through these tubes. Inserting the tubes and giving feedings through them are common procedures among premature babies.
  • Incubators: Premature infants have trouble keeping themselves warm, so incubators are used to provide a warm place for baby to rest. Skin probes constantly measure the baby's temperature, so he or she doesn't get too warm or too cold.
  • Phototherapy: Preemies are more likely to have problems from jaundice. Phototherapy lights, also called bili lights, are special lights that help the baby's body break down bilirubin, the chemical that causes jaundice.


    American Academy of Pediatrics. "Levels of Neonatal Care" Pediatrics 2004 114:1341-1347.

    Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "Procedures and Equipment in NICU." Accessed November 22, 2008 from http://www.chp.edu/CHP/P02358

    Children's Hospital West. "Our Caring NICU Staff." 2008. Accessed November 22, 2008. http://www.memorialwest.com/neonatal/staff.aspx

    March of Dimes. "Glossary: Common NICU Equipment." October 2008. Accessed November 22, 2008.

    Nemours Foundation. "When Your Baby's In the NICU." Accessed November 22, 2008. http://kidshealth.org/parent/system/ill/nicu_caring.html

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