Only occasionally do families of NICU babies have enough advance warning to get a tour of the unit where their precious child will spend the next few days, weeks, or months. The baby is often whisked out of the OR or birthing room before the parents get more than a glimpse and it may be up to 2 hours before the baby is stable enough for them to be permitted to visit.
Sometimes the mother is so sick that it is days before she can leave the birthing center or ICU herself. These can be some of the longest moments of a parent's life.
Babies generally start their stay in some kind of radiant warmer bed. If the NICU is well funded, it may be something like this one:
The bed pictured above has many features which make life easier for the NICU staff, for parents, but most importantly for the tiny infants who need those features to make their lives safer and more comfortable.
Starting at the top:
The bed has a radiant warmer component hidden in the clear shield at the top. It opens when the top is lifted and closes when it is closed. In the open position, the radiant warmer unit can provide enough heat to keep a tiny baby warm in an average-temperature room. The tiniest won't stay warm for long, even in this environment, because they lose heat as body fluids evaporate directly through the skin.
Fortunately, the top can be closed at the touch of a button to make a closed, humidified environment for the baby. Closing the hood shifts the bed to heating by gentle currents of warmed and (optionally) humidified air which are designed to form a barrier between the baby and the exterior.
A sensor probe is attached to the baby's abdomen, armpit, or occasionally side or back to let the bed know exactly how much heat to provide to maintain the baby's temperature.
Not all units have the option of a monitor attached to the ICU bed as this one does, but all babies requiring this type of bed will be monitored (to be discussed later).
Because NICU babies are weighed frequently, a scale has been built into the bed. This allows the baby to stay in his/her warm environment while being weighed. The bed can keep a log of weights and graph them.
The sides have portholes for use when the bed is in its closed position and the sides fold down to permit more access for delicate procedures when the bed is open-- or once the baby is more stable, to allow him/her to be removed without opening the top.
The unit can be lowered so that family members can sit beside the bed to visit or raised enough for the tallest staff member to work comfortably.
More on NICU equipment and admission procedures to come