You will undoubtedly hear unfamiliar terms being used in the NICU to describe your baby’s condition, care, or medical equipment. We have attempted to compile most of these terms here. However, please ask when you do not understand what is being said about your baby. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible in the NICU.
Commonly Used Terms
Apnea and Bradycardia (A’s & B’s): Apnea is a pause in breathing that lasts longer than 15-20 seconds. Apnea sometimes leads to bradycardia, which is a decrease in heart rate. When apnea and bradycardia occur together, it is referred to as “A’s & B’s.” Apnea is very common in premature infants. In fact, it is a normal part of the development of premature newborns.
Arterial Blood Gas (ABG): An ABG is a test done on a small sample of blood to measure the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The test results help NICU staff evaluate a baby’s breathing or adjust respirator support.
Anemia: A common blood condition that occurs when the level of red blood cells in the blood is too low. Babies with anemia may need a blood transfusion if they are having respiratory distress or apnea.
Aspirate: The amount of breast milk or formula remaining in the stomach from the previous feeding.
Bilirubin (Bili): Chemical released as the body breaks down old red blood cells. Elevated bilirubin level causes jaundice, a yellowing of the skin. This is very common in newborn infants. It is often treated with phototherapy (see below).
Chest X-ray: A radiologic image of the chest used to evaluate babies with respiratory distress (breathing difficulty).
Complete Blood Count (CBC): A blood test to determine the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets in the baby’s blood. Results are used to evaluate the infant for anemia or infection.
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): Airway pressure delivered through small prongs that fit into the nose. The extra pressure helps expand your baby’s lungs and makes breathing easier and more regular. CPAP may be used to treat respiratory distress or apnea.
Corrected Age: Infant’s age, taking prematurity into account. It is calculated by adding gestational age at birth to the baby’s post-natal age in weeks. Often called post-menstrual age (PMA).
Extubate: Remove an endotracheal tube and take a baby off a ventilator.
Gestational age: A newborn’s age from the first day of the mother’s last menstrual period to the date of delivery. A full-term infant has a gestational age of 37-41 weeks.
Heel Stick: A blood sample that is obtained by pricking the baby’s heel.
Hematocrit: A blood test to measure the concentration of red blood cells in the blood. Red blood cells carry oxygen. Low hematocrit is another definition of anemia.
Hyperal (Hyperalimentation or TPN): An intravenous solution that provides supplemental nutrition, including protein, sugar, oil, minerals and vitamins to infants unable to tolerate a sufficient amount of milk.
Intubation: Insertion of an endotracheal tube (ET tube) through the mouth or nose into the trachea (windpipe); used to administer surfactant (see below) or provide mechanical ventilation.
Intraventricular Hemorrhage (IVH): A condition which results from the rupture of fragile blood vessels within the brain of very premature infants. IVH is usually graded from 1 – 4 to describe the degree of severity. Very premature infants are evaluated with head ultrasound examinations to detect the presence of IVH.
Jaundice: Yellow color of the skin that appears when there is a high level of bilirubin in the blood; also known as hyperbilirubinemia.
Lumbar Puncture (LP): A procedure to obtain a sample of spinal fluid to test for infection or bleeding. A tiny needle is inserted between two lumbar vertebrae in the lower portion of the back. It is similar to an “epidural” or “spinal” that you may have had during labor.
Meconium: Your baby’s first bowel movements. Meconium is usually dark, green and sticky.
Necrotizing Entercolitis (NEC): Inflammation of the intestinal tract (GI tract), sometimes associated with an infection. This is a very serious condition that may require antibiotics and surgery.
Neonate: A newborn infant, up to 28 days of age.
O2: Abbreviation for oxygen.
Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA): A heart condition which results from the failure of the ductus arteriosus to close after birth. The ductus arteriosus is an artery just outside the heart which connects the aorta to the pulmonary artery and is very important to the developing fetus. If it does not close after birth too much blood flows to the baby’s lungs and may cause respiratory difficulty. A PDA might require treatment with medication or surgery.
Phototherapy: The specialized light (often blue in color) used to treat jaundice by lowering bilirubin level in the blood. Babies will have their eyes covered when phototherapy is used.
Pneumothorax: A condition resulting from the escape of air from the baby’s lungs into the chest cavity, compressing or collapsing the lung. Sometimes a “chest tube” needs to be inserted into the chest cavity to relieve the pressure.
Preemie: An infant born before 37 weeks gestation.
Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS): Respiratory difficulty caused by the lack of a substance called surfactant, usually due to prematurity. Sometimes called Hyaline Membrane Disease (HMD) or surfactant deficiency.
Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP): A condition resulting from a disturbance of the growth of blood vessels in the retina of very premature infants. Babies less than 32 weeks gestation (and those weighing less than 1500 grams at birth) are routinely examined by a pediatric ophthalmologist, usually beginning at one month of age, to detect the presence of ROP.
Sepsis: Bacterial infection in the bloodstream.
Surfactant: A substance normally produced by mature lungs that helps keep the lungs inflated. There is also a manufactured substitute used as a medication to treat RDS in premature infants; it is administered to the baby through an endotracheal tube.
Transient Tachypnea of the Newborn (TTN): Respiratory difficulty usually milder than RDS, that begins soon after birth. It occurs when the fluid that normally fills a baby’s lungs before birth is not absorbed quickly into the blood stream.
Vital Signs: Measurements of essential body functions – body temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure.
Cardiorespiratory Monitor: A machine that displays the heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation (O2 sat) of your baby.
Central Venous Line (PICC): An intravenous catheter inserted into a vein in the hand, foot, arm, leg or scalp, with the tip extending into a large vein near the heart. Usually called a PICC (Percutaneously Inserted Central Catheter), it is used to administer fluids, intravenous nutrition and medication. A PICC does not have to be replaced as often as a peripheral IV.
Chest tube: A small tube placed between the ribs through the chest wall and connected to a suction device. A chest tube is used to treat a pneumothorax which is causing respiratory difficulty.
Endotracheal (ET) Tube: A flexible tube placed through the mouth or nose and advanced into the trachea (windpipe), then connected to a ventilator (respirator) to help a baby breathe.
Feeding tube: A small flexible tube used to administer a mother’s milk or formula. The tube is inserted through the mouth or nose, with the tip in the stomach.
Gavage feeding (NG or tube feeding): A way to feed babies who are not yet able to swallow safely. A thin flexible tube is inserted through the mouth or nose and passed into the stomach. Most premature infants require gavage feeding until 35-36 week PMA.
Intravenous Line or Catheter (IV): A small tube inserted into a vein in the arm, leg, or scalp, used to deliver fluids and/or medication. Sometimes called a “peripheral IV.”
Incubator (Isolette): An enclosed bed that provides warmth or temperature control to newborns.
Leads: Small patches placed on a baby’s chest that connect wires to the cardiorespiratory monitor; also called electrodes.
Monitor: A machine that records an infant’s vital signs (heat rate, breathing rate, temperature, blood pressure).
Nasal Cannula: A small tube that fits into the nostrils and supplies oxygen or air. Nasal cannula is similar to CPAP, but is smaller and provides less pressure.
Nasogastric (NG) or Orogastric (OG) Tube: A small flexible tube that is passed into the stomach through the nose (NG) or mouth (OG) to administer feedings.
PICC: see central venous line.
Pulse Oximeter (O2 Saturation Monitor): A monitoring device that measures the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream non-invasively, using a small light sensor wrapped around the baby’s hand or foot.
Radiant Warmer: An open bed with an overhead heating element used to keep the baby warm and allow the doctors and nurses rapid access to the infant.
Umbilical Artery Catheter (UAC): A small catheter placed into one of the two arteries in the umbilical cord. It can be used to administer fluids, monitor blood pressure and to withdraw blood samples for testing.
Umbilical Vein Catheter (UVC): A small catheter placed in the vein of the umbilical cord. It is used to administer fluids and nutrition and withdraw blood specimens for testing.
Ventilator (Respirator): A machine used to help support breathing by supplying oxygen and pressure. The ventilator is set to deliver a prescribed number of breaths each minute by way of an endotrachel tube.