Learning About Tests in the NICU

Skip Navigation

What tests might your child have?

The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is the part of the hospital where premature or sick newborns get care.

It may seem that your baby is getting lots of tests. All of these tests help your doctor keep track of your baby's condition and give the best treatment possible. Some tests are done only once. Others may be done more often to give the doctor up-to-the-minute information.

Imaging and blood tests are two of the most common types of tests given in the NICU. Which tests your baby gets will depend on your baby's condition.

Blood tests show the amounts of certain minerals and proteins in the blood. They also show how some of your baby's organs are working. Small blood samples may be taken from a quick prick of your baby's heel. Bigger samples may come from a blood vessel. The list below is a sample of the more common blood tests.

Complete blood count (CBC).

This tests the blood cells. It shows if your baby has enough blood cells. It also tells the doctor how much of the oxygen-carrying substance (hemoglobin) is in the blood. A CBC can also show if your baby has an infection.

Arterial blood gases (ABG).

This test measures how much oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) are being carried in the blood. It tells the doctor how well the lungs are supplying the body with oxygen. The doctor may do this test several times a day when a ventilator or CPAP is being used.

Glucose test.

This test measures the amount of sugar in the blood. Premature or ill babies sometimes have problems with their blood sugar levels.


This test checks for a substance in blood that can make the skin and eyes look yellow (jaundice).

Imaging tests give pictures of parts of the body. Here are some common imaging tests.

Chest X-ray.

This test shows the condition of the heart and lungs. It helps the doctor manage the treatment of breathing problems.

Cranial ultrasound.

This test uses sound waves to find bleeding in the brain.


This type of ultrasound shows how the heart and the valves in the heart are working.

What can you expect?

  • 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.
  • If your baby has trouble breathing, the doctor may use a ventilator. This machine helps your baby breathe. To do this, the doctor puts a soft tube through your baby's mouth into the windpipe.
  • The hospital staff will give your baby the nutrition he or she needs. The doctor may feed your baby through a soft tube that goes through the nose and into the stomach. Or the doctor may use an I.V. that goes through the belly button to do this.
  • Your baby will be kept comfortable and warm.
  • 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.

Where can you learn more?

Go to http://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

Enter X533 in the search box to learn more about "Learning About Tests in the NICU".

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.