Since NICU’s are another thing we don’t seem to talk about much, even the thought of the NICU (pronounced NIK-yoo) can be scary. Dealing with the 4th trimester is hard enough without having to cope with the serious stress of worrying about the health of your tiny new human.
The good news is that many NICU babies survive and thrive after receiving neonatal care.
Albert Einstein, Anna Pavlova, Mark Twain, Sidney Poitier—all preterm babies who required a fair deal of post-birth TLC.
That’s exactly why the NICU exists—to ensure that babies who need specialized care at birth get the treatment they need.
What is NICU?
What does NICU stand for?
NICU stands for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—essentially an ICU ward dedicated specifically to the care of newborn babies. Babies might need some NICU TLC if they are born preterm and/or if they are sick.
For a baby to survive in the world outside of the comfort of your womb, they need to be able to:
- Breathe easily.
- Take in nutrition.
- Get rid of waste.
- Have an immune system strong enough to take on the world.
If any of your baby’s bodily systems are not up to these tasks quite yet, they may require neonatal care in the NICU. If they no longer need intensive care but still have to be monitored, they might be moved to a special care nursery. Your baby will get round-the-clock attention from a NICU nurse and a team of specialized doctors and equipment.
How long do premature babies stay in NICU?
It all depends on the treatment they need.
Without complication, even babies born before 28 weeks can be home after a few weeks in the NICU. Others can spend up to a few months.
Before leaving, your baby will have to be able to breathe on their own, feed with their mouth, and have some control over the regulation of their body temperature.
While your baby is in the NICU, you will be able to see them and, in many cases, feed and cuddle them. Some family members may also be allowed to visit.
Why do full term babies go to NICU?
In some cases, full term babies also need the attention the NICU provides. Some possible reasons include:
- Low birth weight or size.
- PPHN (Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn). This means your newborn has high blood pressure in their lungs and will need a ventilator to help them breathe.
- Heart defects.
- Trouble feeding.
What does a NICU look like?
Your first visit to the NICU can be daunting. Tiny babies amongst machines, white coats, and beeps are enough to make anyone feel a little overwhelmed.
But getting to know the NICU in a bit more detail can help make it a lot less frightening. Here’s a quick tour:
Lighting: The lights may be dimmed so that those newborn senses are not overwhelmed. If your baby is suffering from jaundice, they may require phototherapy—a kind of special light treatment that lowers the levels of bilirubin in your baby’s blood.
Warmth: Newborns will either be in a baby incubator or a heated cot. (If babies have had a difficult birth, they may need a cooling bed to stave off the risk of brain injury.)
Support: Ventilators to help with breathing, monitors to check vitals, feeding tubes that get their nutrition levels up.
Specialized treatment: Some babies may require special treatment such as x-rays and ultrasounds. The relevant machinery can be brought right into the unit. Many preterm babies are anemic and will need some help upping their iron levels and red blood cell production.
What does NICU cost per day?
The reality is, NICU is expensive.
The amount you pay all depends on where you live—but wherever you are, neonatal treatment is by no means a cheap affair. NICU can run you a bill of $3000 a day in the U.S. if you don’t have medical coverage. To make matters worse, some insurers reject neonatal costs. Yeah, the whole situation is pretty appalling.
So. What can we do?
It’s a good idea for all pregnant mamas and their partners to get really familiar with their insurance before baby is born. If you don’t have insurance or are having trouble paying your bills, your hospital might have a social worker or other financial assistance representative to help you discuss your options. This page from the March of Dimes has some good information on paying for NICU stays.
And if you’re in a position to advocate for other mamas (this probably doesn’t apply to you if your baby is currently in the NICU - you have enough on your plate!), then let your local representatives know that you want better options for families struggling to pay for NICU costs. Hopefully there will be a day when no one has to consider finances when planning care for sick babies.
If your baby is in the NICU, you don’t have to feel alone, mama. Up to 1 in 10 babies are born preterm in the United States.
But… that doesn’t mean it’s not insanely stressful. Reach out for help. Lean on family and friends. Seek counseling. Whatever you’re feeling is completely legitimate. You will get through this, mama!