NICU common terms explained

NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) is an intensive care unit designed with special equipment to care for premature or seriously ill newborn babies. It can be a daunting place the first time you visit either your own baby or someone else’s. Here we’ll explain some of the common terms and equipment used by the medical team to help guide you through.

NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) is an intensive care unit designed with special equipment to care for premature babies or seriously ill newborn babies.

It can be a daunting place the first time you visit the unit, either because of your own baby or someone else’s. There's likely to be lots of unfamiliar equipment and medical terms you may never have heard of before.

NICU common terms explained

Here are some of the more common terms or words you may come across when visiting a NICU unit.


  • Too few red blood cells. Anemic babies may need blood transfusions.


  • A short period of time when the baby does not take a breath. Prem babies often sleep on apnoea mats to help monitor their breathing. An alarm sounds if they stop breathing to alert medical staff.


  • The drawing in of foreign matter or other material in the upper respiratory tract into the lungs. Aspiration also refers to a medical procedure in which fluids are sucked out of the lungs, nose or mouth using a suction device.


  • Helping the baby to breathe by connecting a special rubber bag either to a mask over the mouth or to a tube in the trachea and lung.


  • A chemical created by the breakdown of the red blood cells. A large amount of bilirubin in the body causes yellow colouring of the skin and eyes (jaundice). Nearly all babies have some jaundice, including healthy full-term babies.

Bilirubin lights (bili lights)

  • Fluorescent lights that reduce jaundice and help break down the bilirubin in the skin. Babies are undressed to expose as much skin surface as possible and their eyes are covered with patches or a mask to protect them from the lights. Also called phototherapy.

Blood gas

  • A test using a small amount of blood to measure levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.


  • A slower than normal heartbeat; often occurs with apnoea.

Cardio respiratory monitor

  • This measures a baby's breathing and heart rate. Three self adhesive disks with leads attached are placed on the baby’s chest so that the readings can be taken. These readings can be viewed on a screen or monitor, and if either measurement reads above or below an acceptable limit, an alarm sounds to alert medical staff.


  • A tube which puts fluids into the body or drains fluids out.

Chest tube

  • A tube inserted through the chest wall; used to suction air and/or fluids from the chest.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

  • A continuous amount of air, sometimes with added oxygen, is delivered through tubes in the babies nose to keep the airways of the lungs open as the baby breathes.


  • Taking a sample of blood or body fluids to test for germs which may cause an infection.


  • A bluish colouring of the skin and lips caused by a low level of oxygen in the blood.


  • The collection of extra fluid in body tissues, causing swelling or puffiness of skin.


  • A sensor which sends heartbeat and breathing information to the monitor. They can be placed on the chest, arms or legs. Also called leads.


  • Sodium, potassium and chloride levels in the blood. Correct levels of these chemicals must be present so that the body organs can function properly.

Endotracheal tube (ET tube)

  • A plastic tube inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea (windpipe) to help breathing; usually connected to a breathing machine (ventilator).


  • The process of removing an endotracheal tube.

Gavage feeding

  • Feeding a baby through a gastric tube inserted into the stomach.

Gestational age

  • The length of time from conception to birth (how long the baby stays in the womb). Full-term gestation is between 38 and 42 weeks.

High frequency ventilation (HFV)

  • A type of ventilator which gives very small breaths at a very fast rate; the baby’s chest will actually vibrate. HFV works differently from “conventional” ventilation to treat specific breathing or lung problems.

Hyaline membrane disease (HMD)

  • A breathing problem that causes the tiny air sacs in the lungs to collapse; usually due to lung immaturity and lack of a natural lung chemical (surfactant). Also called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS).


  • Excess spinal fluid causing enlargement of the ventricles in the brain.


  • A low level of oxygen in the body tissue. If very low, tissue damage can occur.


  • Premature babies lack the ability to maintain their body temperature so keeping them in this special enclosed bed keeps them warm until they gain some fat and the ability to hold their own body temperature.

Intravenous Fluid, Lines and Pump

  • Babies may require intravenous medication, fluid or feeding. In this case lines are inserted into a vein or artery in the baby’s leg, arm, scalp or what remains of the umbilical cord. A special pump regulates the amount of medication or fluid the baby receives.

Intravenous line (IV)

  • A hollow needle or plastic tube inserted into a vein; used to give fluids, blood and/or medication.

Intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH)

  • Bleeding within the brain’s ventricles (spaces in the brain which contain spinal fluid). Also called intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding in or around the brain).


  • Placing a tube through the nose or mouth into the trachea (windpipe).


  • The yellow discoloration of a baby’s skin and eyes caused by too much bilirubin in the blood.

Kangaroo Care/Kangaroo Cuddles

  • Skin-to-skin contact where babies are positioned on their mum's or dad’s bare chest to promote bonding and healing.


  • The first bowel movement/stool passed by a newborn, usually dark green and sticky.

Meconium aspiration syndrome

  • A type of pneumonia caused by a stool being passed by the baby while still in the womb. The stool can be inhaled into the baby’s lungs and can partially or completely block the baby’s air passage. This makes it difficult for the baby to breathe.

Nasal Canula

  • A small plastic tube placed under the nose to provide oxygen.

Nasogastric tube (NG tube)

  • A tube inserted through the nose or mouth (orogastric or OG) and into the stomach. The tube delivers nutrients and medications and removes undigested food and fluids from the stomach.

Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)

  • A bowel condition caused by lack of blood supply. A section of the bowel may become severely inflamed or infected.


  • A newborn infant less than 30 days old.


  • A physician who specializes in the care of critically ill newborn infants.


  • A type of high frequency ventilator.

Oxygen Saturation

  • The level of oxygen in a baby’s blood. The oxygen level is measured by a small probe on the baby’s hand or foot, also by blood samples. This level tells at a glance how well oxygen is being carried through the body.

Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA)

  • A small vessel (ductus) between the major arteries of the heart and the lungs. Before birth, this vessel is open and allows blood to bypass the lungs (not yet in use). When this opening fails to close after birth, it can cause problems with oxygen rich blood getting to the body.

Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter (PICC)

  • A flexible, thin IV tube put into a vein in the arm, foot or leg and then routed up into or near the heart.

Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of Newborns (PPHN)

  • A serious condition that causes the baby to return to its prebirth route of blood circulation. The baby’s blood is only partially oxygenated through the lungs. This results in very low oxygen levels, plus a higher blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. Treatment includes, oxygen, ventilator therapy, medications and/or ECMO. Also called persistent fetal circulation (PFC).

Phototherapy Lights

  • Special lights are used to help break down biliruben. Babies are usuall naked, except for a nappy, to maximize the amount of skin exposed to the light. They will also wear a special mask to protect their eyes.

Pneumothorax (pneumo)

  • Air escapes from the lungs into the chest cavity, creating a pocket of air in the wrong place. This pocket of air then presses on the lungs or heart. A chest tube or catheter can be inserted to remove the pocket of air which lets the lungs re-expand.

Pulse Oximetre

  • An electronic monitor that detects oxygen saturation in the blood using a light sensor probe. A probe is taped, usually to the baby’s foot, which measures the amount of oxygen in their blood. This probe is regularly moved from foot to foot to prevent false readings and ensure no damage is done to their skin.

Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS)

  • See hyaline membrane.

Retinopathy Of Prematurity (ROP)

  • An eye disorder, involving the retina that can occur in premature infants.

Room air

  • The ordinary air we breathe which contains 21% oxygen. Oxygen therapy can deliver from 22 – 100% oxygen.


  • An infection caused by bacteria.

Spinal tap

  • The removal of a small amount of fluid from the spinal canal. The fluid is then analyzed for infection, bleeding, and other disorders.


  • A substance in the lungs that helps keep the tiny air sacs from collapsing and sticking together. A lack of this substance contributes to Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS).

Transient Tachypnea of the Newborn (TTN)

  • A condition when a baby breathes with quick, shallow breathes (usually over 80 breaths per minute). It is often caused by fluid in the lungs and will improve as this fluid is absorbed. Some babies need oxygen as this resolves. TTN is often associated with cesarean delivery.

Umbilical Catheter, Arterial or Venous (UAC, UVC)

  • A tube inserted through the belly button (umbilical cord) into the arterial or venous blood vessels. Either tube is used to give the baby fluids and to draw blood samples. The UAC is used to monitor the baby’s blood pressure. If the baby requires oxygen therapy, the UAC will be used to draw blood gases and blood samples.


  • This is a machine that fills the baby’s lungs with air and helps the baby breathe. Also known as a respirator. Oxygen is supplied through a tube inserted into the baby’s nose or mouth and leads into the windpipe.

Ventricles of the brain

  • Spaces in the brain that contain spinal fluid to bathe and cushion the brain.

More premature baby articles to enjoy

Source: Early Buds - supporting kiwi parents of premature babies who spend time in NICU or SCBU.

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