When your newborn is premature or critically ill, they are cared for in a neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. NICUs have specialized technology to care for the youngest, most vulnerable patients.
While an infant is in the NICU, board-certified neonatologists and specialized neonatal nurses monitor your infant closely to ensure your baby is continuing to grow and develop correctly. NICU staff perform similar procedures and monitoring as adult intensive care units. They place breathing tubes, feeding tubes and central and peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) lines. For some babies, staff can place an intravenous line in the umbilical cord that acts as a central line.
“With the technological advances in the last 40 years, we’re able to treat smaller and smaller babies and help them have positive outcomes,” said Dr. Audra Winder, a neonatologist with Marshfield Children’s Hospital at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “They are able to go on and lead normal lives with fewer long-term complications.”
Specialized intensive care unit
The baby’s incubator, or isolette, is equipped with specialized technology. Isolettes control heat and humidity and help monitor the baby’s needs. Babies don’t have enough body fat to help them regulate their temperature. This causes them to lose heat and moisture rapidly through their skin. “When a baby loses even a few degrees of heat, they won’t eat, breathing can become irregular and they can develop bradycardia (a low heart rate),” Winder said.
Even the baby’s pacifier has a high-tech way of helping. Some premature babies haven’t developed the muscles and reflexes to breathe and feed at the same time. The NICU has a pacifier activated lullaby, or PAL. This is a special pacifier that encourages babies to develop their feeding skills by using lullabies or their parents’ voices as a reward.
Other specialized technology in the NICU include bili light therapy to treat jaundice, non-invasive ventilator technology to support breathing without the need for a breathing tube, and mother’s breast milk or donated breast milk fortified with extra calories, protein and calcium to help infants grow. The NICU offers therapeutic hypothermia for infants who experience birth-related oxygen deprivation and show signs of brain injury.
Support for parents
Marshfield Children’s Hospital also offers support for parents. NicView cameras let parents see their child even when they cannot be by their side. “They can see their baby on a secure website 24 hours a day. It’s helpful for families who live far away, and some moms find it helpful to watch when they are expressing breast milk,” Winder said.
With all the technical advances, sometimes mom or dad’s touch is the best medicine. The NICU encourages kangaroo care or skin-to-skin contact with their parent. “We’ve seen improvement with vital signs, breathing, body temperature and long-term outcomes because of kangaroo care,” Winder said. Moms also can benefit from kangaroo care with reduced postpartum depression, better milk supply and increased bonding.
Child Life & Expressive Therapies at Marshfield Children’s Hospital has activities that help the babies stay on track with their developmental goals, as well as ways to provide support to baby’s parents and other siblings. Social workers and pediatric psychologists also provide coping strategies.
High quality care, close to home
Marshfield Children’s Hospital has the only NICU connected to a dedicated children’s hospital in the heart of Wisconsin. “We’re able to take care of the youngest and smallest babies and do so in a more gentle way, closer to home,” Winder said.
The NICU also has access to a wide range of pediatric subspecialties, including pediatric surgery. A dedicated specialty transport team is trained and available to care for the young NICU and pediatric patients while they are transported from around the state and region to receive care at Marshfield Children’s Hospital.