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Common Terms & Abbreviations Used in the NICU

When your baby goes into the NICU, you may encounter many unfamiliar words. Below are explanations of the most commonly used abbreviations, equipment and procedures:

  • A’s and B’s: An abbreviation referring to episodes of apnea and bradycardia; see definitions for APNEA and BRADYCARDIA
  • Anemia: This is when a baby doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of the body.
  • Apnea (A’s): This is a pause in breathing for 20 seconds or more. It may happen together with a slow heart rate.
  • Apnea monitor: A machine that detects when your baby stops breathing for a few seconds. An alarm goes off to let NICU staff know your baby has stopped breathing.   
  • Arterial lines: Similar to IVs, these thin tubes are placed in arteries, not veins, and are used to check blood pressure and measure blood gases. An artery is a blood vessel that carries oxygen to all parts of your baby’s body. Blood pressure is the force of blood that pushes against the walls of the arteries. Blood gases are acid, oxygen and carbon dioxide in your baby’s blood.   
  • Blood gases: A test to check the amount of acid, oxygen and carbon dioxide in your baby’s blood.   
  • Blood pressure (BP): The force of the blood on blood vessel walls. This is caused by the heart beating and by the muscles inside the blood vessel walls.   
  • Blood pressure monitor: A machine connected to a small blood pressure cuff wrapped around your baby’s arm or leg. The cuff takes your baby’s blood pressure at regular times and displays it on a screen. Blood pressure is the force of blood that pushes against the walls of the arteries.
  • Bradycardia (B’s): A heart rate of less than 100 beats per minute, which is slower than normal. Premature babies sometimes do not breathe regularly. Interrupted breathing, also called apnea, can cause Bradycardia. NICU staff call these conditions A's and B's: apnea and bradycardia.   
  • Breast pump: A device, either hand or electric, used to express and collect your breast milk.   
  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD): A chronic lung disorder is a lung condition that can develop in premature babies as well as babies who have treatment with a breathing machine. Babies with BPD sometimes develop fluid in the lungs, scarring and lung damage.   
  • CAT or CT scan (computed tomography scan): A CT scan is a type of imaging. It uses special x-ray equipment to make cross-sectional pictures of tissue the doctor want to see. The baby will need to be taken to the radiology department and possibly sedated (so he doesn't move) for this test.   
  • Central line:  A small plastic tube that goes into a large blood vessel. Your baby gets medicine and fluids through the tube, and providers can draw blood out through the tube. One kind of central line used a lot in the NICU is called a peripherally inserted central catheter (also called a PICC line).   
  • CPAP/bubble CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure): A machine that sends a steady, gentle supply of air and oxygen to your baby’s lungs through small tubes in his nose or windpipe (also called trachea). It uses low continuous pressure to keep the lungs inflated while a baby is breathing on his or her own. Bubble CPAP uses a water chamber.   
  • CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation): A way to get the heart and lungs working again if they have stopped.
  • Desat’s (desaturation): A decrease in the amount of oxygen in a baby’s red blood cells monitored by a pulse oximeter.
  • Donor human breast milk (PDM): Pasteurized donor breast milk is a safe alternative to mom’s own milk and is used for very low birth weight (<1,500 g) infants when their own mother’s milk is not available. Healthy lactating mothers voluntarily express and donate their breast milk. These mothers are tested for many diseases. All milk is pasteurized to kill viruses while saving most of the unique immune properties. Pasteurized donor milk helps to protect against serious digestive problems and infection. You will have to sign a consent form before we can give your baby PDM.
  • Echocardiogram (echo): A specialized form of ultrasound examination that is used to study the heart. It can detect structural problems (heart defects) and problems with how the heart works.
  • Endotracheal tube (ET tube): A breathing tube. An ET tube is a small plastic tube that goes into a baby’s nose or mouth and down to the windpipe (also called the trachea), that sends air and oxygen to the lungs. The tube is attached to a machine called a mechanical ventilator to help your baby breathe.
  • Expressed breast milk (EBM): breast milk that has been expressed, either by hand or pump, for babies who are unable to feed at the breast.
  • Extubation: removal of the breathing tube, also called the ET tube.
  • Feeding tubes: NICU babies are often unable to get as many calories as they need through regular bottle-feeding, so nurses will use a small feeding tube to deliver your breast milk or formula. Gavage feeding is when a baby is fed breastmilk or formula through a tube placed through his nose (nasogastric or NG tube) or mouth (orogastric or OG tube) into the stomach or intestines.   
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GER): GER happens when gas or liquid from the stomach comes up the esophagus.
  • High-frequency ventilator: A machine that breathes for your baby at a faster rate than other ventilators. Oscillating and jet ventilators are examples of high-frequency ventilators.   
  • Human milk fortifier (HMF): a liquid that is added to increase the calories, protein and nutrition content of breast milk for premature babies.
  • Hypoglycemia: low blood sugar (glucose).   
  • Incubators: These are small beds enclosed by clear, durable plastic. The temperature inside is controlled and closely monitored because premature infants often have trouble controlling their body temperature. Holes in the incubators allow you to touch your baby, and nurses and doctors can examine your baby. Babies remain in an incubator until they can regulate their body temperature on their own. Kinds of incubators are Giraffe® and Isolette®.   
  • Infections: Premature babies often have trouble fighting off germs because their immune systems are not fully formed. Infections that may affect a premature baby include pneumonia, a lung infection; sepsis, a blood infection; and meningitis, an infection in the fluid around the brain and spinal cord.   
  • Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IUGR): A baby with this condition grows more slowly than usual in utero, and is smaller than normal for his gestational age at birth. IUGR is ordinarily diagnosed during pregnancy through an ultrasound.   
  • Intravenous line (IV): A thin, flexible tube inserted into the vein with a small needle. A vein is a blood vessel that brings blood back to the heart. Once in the vein, the needle is removed, leaving only the soft plastic tubing. Almost all babies have an I.V. to receive fluids and medications at some time during their stay in the advanced NICU. Instead of giving your baby injections every few hours, I.V.s allow medications to be given continuously.   
  • Intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH): This is bleeding in the brain. It usually happens near the ventricles in the center of the brain. A ventricle is a space in the brain that is filled with fluid.   
  • Intubation: placing an endotracheal tube (ET tube) in the baby’s windpipe (trachea).
  • Jaundice: This is when a baby's eyes and skin look yellow. A baby has jaundice when his liver is not fully developed or is not working well.   
  • Lab culture: Your baby’s blood, urine, spinal fluid or other body fluid may be collected to see if bacteria grows. Results from this test are usually available within 3 days.
  • Lumbar puncture (LP): A test in which a small needle is used to remove fluid from around the spinal column.   
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Like a CT scan, an MRI can produce a very detailed picture that may be difficult to see on an X-ray or ultrasound. The MRI gives a more detailed view than a CT scan, using powerful magnets and computers to create an image. This test is painless and safe for babies. The baby will need to be moved to the radiology department for this test and may have to be sedated.   
  • Meconium: The first bowel movements that a baby has which are thick and dark green to black in color.
  • Monitors: Infants in the NICU are attached to monitors, so the staff can closely watch their vital signs. A cardiopulmonary monitor is a machine that tracks your baby’s heart and breathing rates. It is connected to your baby’s chest with small sticky pads called leads. Information from the monitor displays on a screen and can be printed out. If your baby’s heart or breathing rate becomes too fast or too slow, an alarm sounds.   
  • Nasal cannula: Small plastic tubes that go into your baby’s nose. Air and oxygen go through the tubes into your baby’s lungs.   
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC): This intestinal disease occurs when the lining of the intestinal wall dies. NEC occurs primarily in premature, and sometimes in term infants. Surgery is sometimes needed to remove damaged intestine.   
  • Newborn screening test: Also called a PKU or NBS test, newborn screening is a test performed by pricking a baby's heel to obtain a few drops of blood on a filter paper. It tests babies for serious hereditary disorders. The state of Texas screens for 29 core conditions and 24 secondary conditions.   
  • NIPPV (non-invasive positive pressure ventilation): mechanical ventilation that does not require an endotracheal tube (ET tube).
  • Nitric Oxide: medical gas used to treat pulmonary hypertension (see PPHN).
  • NPO (nil per os): No milk is given by mouth or feeding tube. Your baby will get IV nutrition (see TOTAL PARENTERAL NUTRITION) when they are NPO.
  • Oscillator: see HIGH-FREQUENCY VENTILATOR
  • Oxygen hood: a clear plastic box that fits over a baby’s head and gives him oxygen. Providers use it with babies who can breathe on their own but still need some extra oxygen.   
  • PDA (patent ductus arteriosus): This is a heart problem that happens in the connection (called the ductus arteriosus) between two major blood vessels near the heart. If the ductus does not close properly after birth, a baby can have breathing problems or heart failure. Heart failure is when the heart cannot pump enough blood.   
  • PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter): a type of central line; see definition for CENTRAL LINE
  • Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN): Babies with PPHN cannot breathe properly because they have high blood pressure in their lungs. Babies with PPHN often need a mechanical ventilator to help them breathe. They may be given a gas called nitric oxide through a tube in the windpipe. This treatment may help the blood vessels in the lungs to relax and improve breathing.   
  • Phototherapy (Bili lights): Bright lights over a baby’s incubator that treat jaundice. An incubator is a clear plastic bed that keeps your baby warm. Jaundice is when a baby's eyes and skin look yellow. A baby has jaundice when his liver isn't fully developed or isn't working. Treatment with bililights is also called phototherapy. Babies can have this treatment for 3 to 7 days.   
  • Pneumonia: This lung infection is common in premature and other sick newborns. A baby's doctors may suspect pneumonia if the baby has difficulty breathing, if her rate of breathing changes, or if the baby has an increased number of apnea episodes.   
  • Premature birth: This is birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy. About 7 of 10 low-birthweight babies are premature. The earlier a baby is born, the lower her birthweight may be. About 1 in 10 babies in the United States is born prematurely. Talk to your health provider about things you can do to help reduce your chances of having a premature baby.
  • Pulse oximeter (pulse ox): a small device wrapped around your baby’s foot or hand that measures the oxygen in her blood. It doesn’t cause your baby any pain. It helps providers know if your baby needs more or less oxygen.   
  • Radiant warmer:  An open bed with overhead heating to help keep your baby warm. Providers may use a warmer instead of an incubator if your baby needs to be handled a lot. An incubator is a clear plastic bed that helps keep your baby warm.   
  • Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS): This is a breathing problem most common in babies born before 34 weeks of pregnancy. Babies with RDS don’t have a protein called surfactant that keeps small air sacs in the lungs from collapsing.   
  • Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP): This is an abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye. ROP can lead to vision loss.   
  • Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) examination: This test usually is done for babies born at or before 30 weeks of gestation or weighing less than 1,500 grams (3 1/3 pounds). The eye doctor, also called an ophthalmologist, will check to see if the blood vessels in the baby's eyes are developing the right way. If there are signs of any problems, the doctor will keep checking the baby's eyes on a regular basis to see if the condition is getting better or needs treatment.   
  • Room Air: The air that we normally breathe. Room air contains 21% oxygen.
  • Rooming In: This is when you stay overnight in the hospital and take total care of your baby before going home.
  • Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN): IV feeding with a mixture of sugar, protein, vitamins, minerals and electrolytes. IV fats (lipids) are given separately
  • Skin-to-skin care: Also called Kangaroo Care. Kangaroo care is when you lay your diapered baby on your bare chest (if you are the father) or between your bare breasts (if you are the mother). It is also called skin-to-skin care because your baby’s bare skin is touching your bare skin. Put a blanket on your baby’s back to help keep him warm. Research shows that babies benefit greatly from skin-to-skin contact, so we encourage new parents to cuddle their baby directly against their skin.
  • Tracheostomy tube (trach): a curved plastic tube that goes in your baby’s windpipe (also called trachea) through a hole made in your baby’s neck. The trachea is part of the airway system that takes air to the lungs. Your baby breathes through the tube instead of his nose and mouth. The tube does not go into your baby’s lungs.   
  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves and a computer screen to show a picture of your baby inside the womb. A small hand-held device called a transducer is rubbed back and forth over the area that the doctor wants to see. An ultrasound examination is painless and done at the baby's incubator. It often is done to determine if a baby has any bleeding in the brain. A head ultrasound or “head sonogram” is the routine test to diagnose bleeding in the brain.   
  • Umbilical catheter: a thin tube that goes into the arteries in your baby’s umbilical cord after the cord is cut after birth. Providers can give fluids, blood, medicine and nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, to your baby through the tube. They also use the tube to take blood from your baby. A small attachment to the tube lets providers check your baby’s blood pressure. Blood pressure is the force of blood that pushes against the walls of the arteries.   
  • Urinary catheter: a thin tube that goes through the opening where urine passes out of your baby’s body and into his bladder. Providers use it to collect urine for testing.   
  • Urine tests: Like blood tests, urine tests can tell a great deal about a baby's overall condition. Urine tests can help determine how well the kidneys are functioning, and whether the baby has an infection.   
  • Ventilators: A ventilator machine is used when babies in the NICU need additional help breathing. It works by pushing warm air and oxygen into the lungs through a breathing tube called an endotracheal tube. The provider sets the amount of oxygen, air pressure and number of breaths per minute for your baby.   
  • Weighing: A baby is weighed soon after delivery, then at least once a day while he is in the NICU. Don't be alarmed if your baby loses some weight in the first days or weeks after birth. This is normal, especially for very small babies. When a premature baby starts gaining weight at a steady rate, it is an encouraging sign that he is doing well.   
  • X-rays: X-rays provide pictures of a baby's lungs and other internal organs. These pictures help the baby's doctor plan her treatment and monitor her progress. The baby may receive several lung X-rays each day if she has serious breathing problems. She will be exposed to a little radiation from these X-rays. However, the amount is so low it should not affect the baby's health now or in the future. The baby will not need to be moved to the radiology department for this test; it is done right at her incubator.