Learning About Breathing Support in the NICU

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How does the NICU support your baby's breathing?

The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is the part of the hospital where premature or sick newborns get care. This care may include helping your baby breathe. The goal is for your baby to breathe safely until help is no longer needed.

To help your baby breathe, the doctor may use a device such as:

  • A ventilator. This is a machine that breathes for your baby while the lungs are growing or healing. It sends oxygen or air into the lungs through a thin tube. The tube is placed in the windpipe through the nose or mouth.
  • A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This device gently pushes oxygen or air into the lungs through a mask that fits over the nose and mouth, or through tubes that fit in the nostrils. It may be used when a ventilator isn't needed.
  • A nasal cannula. This is a thin tube attached to an oxygen tank. Two prongs are placed in your baby's nostrils. Oxygen flows through the openings in the prongs and into your baby's nose. It may be used when your baby can breathe on his or her own but still needs oxygen.

Your baby may get medicine that coats the inside of the lungs. The medicine is called surfactant. It helps the lungs inflate with air more easily. The doctor applies the medicine through a tube that goes into the lungs.

The NICU staff can use other devices to track how well your baby is breathing.

  • A heart monitor is a sensor attached to your baby's chest. It tracks both breathing and heart rate.
  • A pulse oximeter clips onto your baby's hand or foot. It measures how much oxygen is in the blood.

What can you expect?

  • Over time, your baby may not need as much breathing support. As your baby gets stronger, the doctor may move your baby from the ventilator to a CPAP machine, then to a nasal cannula with oxygen, and finally to breathing without the need for help.
  • You may see tubes and wires attached to your baby. This can be scary to see. But these things help the doctor treat your baby. The tubes supply air, fluid, and medicines to your baby. The wires are attached to machines that help the doctor keep track of your baby's vital signs. These include temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, and pulse rate.
  • It's hard to be apart from your baby, especially when you worry about his or her condition. Know that the hospital staff is well prepared to care for babies with this condition. They will do everything they can to help. If you need it, ask for support from friends and family. You can also ask the hospital staff about counseling and support.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.