Neonatal Language Terms Used in the NICU

NICU nurse holding preemie baby

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While you are in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with your baby, you will hear the doctors and nurses speaking in what seems to be a foreign language. Understanding these words and adapting to this NICU culture can be quite a challenge. 

NICU Terms Parents Should Know

The following is a list of some of the terms you may hear at the bedside, and what they mean in plain English to help you as you navigate your way through your NICU journey.

  • A's and B's: Slang terms often used in the NICU meaning, periods of apnea and bradycardia (slower breathing and slower heart rate)
  • Anemia: ​A condition in which the red blood cells in the blood, measured by hematocrit, are lower than normal. Red blood cells carry oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the tissue.
  • Apnea: A prolonged pause in breathing that lasts more than twenty seconds. This is a common problem in premature infants and requires monitoring and sometimes medication.
  • Aspiration: Inhaling a foreign substance into the lungs, such as milk or amniotic fluid.
  • “Bagging”: A slang term often used in the NICU meaning, to pump air into the baby’s lungs using oxygen and a rubber bag. This method is used temporarily to help a baby who needs help breathing.
  • "Blow by”: A slang term often used in the NICU meaning, to give a baby a small amount of oxygen through a tube pointed towards the nose.
  • Bilirubin: A yellow-pigmented waste product that forms when the body naturally eliminates old red blood cells. It may make the skin and eyes look yellow. In premature infants, they are often put under fluorescent light or on a bili blanket to help the levels come down.
  • Blood Gas: A blood test used to evaluate an infant’s level of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and acid. This helps to evaluate an infant’s respiratory status.
  • Bradycardia (Brady): A slowing of the baby’s heart rate.
  • Chem strip: (Blood Sugar or Dex Stick): Testing of the baby’s blood sugar level.
  • Chronologic Age: A baby’s age based on their actual birthday.
  • Corrected Age: A baby’s age based on their gestation. 
  • Cyanosis: Blueness of the skin as a result of decreased oxygen levels.
  • "De-satting" or Desaturation: A drop of oxygen levels in the baby’s bloodstream.
  • Endotracheal Tube (ET Tube): A tube that passes through either the baby’s mouth or nose into the windpipe (trachea) to allow oxygen into the lungs.
  • Gavage Feedings (Tube Feedings or NG- Nasal Gastric Tube): Providing nutrition through a plastic tube passed through the baby’s mouth or nose and into the stomach.
  • Head Ultrasound (HUS): A painless test that uses sound waves to look at a baby’s brain. This test can be done at the bedside in the NICU. 
  • "Heel Stick”: A slang term often used in the NICU meaning, to obtain a blood sample by pricking the baby’s heel.
  • High-Frequency Oscillatory Ventilator: A special ventilator capable of breathing for a baby at rates exceeding those of a normal ventilator.
  • Hypotension: Low blood pressure.
  • Intravenous (IV) Therapy: Nutrition or medication given through a catheter that is inserted into a vein.
  • Intubation: Inserting a tube into the trachea (windpipe) through the nose or mouth to allow air to reach the lungs.
  • "I's and O's”: A slang abbreviation often used in the NICU meaning, the amount of fluid, (IV and feeds) baby takes in compared to how much the baby pees and poops out.
  • Isolette or incubator: A type of enclosed bed for an infant who is not mature or well enough to maintain her body temperature in an open crib.
  • Jaundice: A yellow skin color that develops in most premature babies and in some full-term babies.
  • Kangaroo CareSkin-to-skin care where the baby is placed on the bare chest of the mother or father.
  • “Leads": Monitor wires attached to baby’s skin.
  • Meconium: A dark green sticky substance found in the baby’s intestines. It’s the first bowel movement after birth.
  • Monitor: A machine that displays the heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and blood oxygen saturation of the baby.
  • Nasal Cannula: Small prongs placed in the baby’s nose that delivers oxygen.
  • NPO: Latin abbreviation for “nothing by mouth.” If the baby is kept NPO, all nutrition will be given intravenously.
  • Pneumothorax: A collapsed lung- the collection of air in the space around the lungs. This buildup of air puts pressure on the lung, so it cannot expand as much as it normally does when you take a breath.
  • Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter (PICC Line): A PICC is a line inserted through a vein and then advanced through increasingly larger veins, toward the heart. Used when IV therapy, antibiotics, or nutrition (TPN/lipids) are administered for a long period of time.
  • Phototherapy: Light therapy to treat jaundice. Bright blue fluorescent lights, called bililights, are placed over the baby’s incubator or the baby may be placed on a blanket that also shines the light up to the baby.
  • PKU- Metabolic Screen/Newborn Screening: A blood test done on special paper that tests for several different genetic disorders. It is often done 24-72 hours after birth and repeated on preemie babies at 2weeks and 4 weeks of age.
  • Pulse Oximeter or "Pulse Ox": A machine that measures how well the blood is being oxygenated, often found on the feet or wrists.
  • "Priming the Gut": A slang phrase often heard in the NICU often used to describe the slow starting of feeds to get the digestive system ready to start functioning fully. (Also termed trophic feeds)
  • Reflux: A backward flow of stomach contents, generally referring to a type of spitting up or regurgitation common in premature infants.
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS): Lung disease that is caused by lack of surfactant (lubricant in the lungs) and is a common cause of breathing difficulty in premature babies.
  • Residuals: The contents left inside the belly at the start of the next feeding.
  • Sepsis: A potentially fatal and dangerous condition in which the body is fighting a severe infection that has spread via the bloodstream.
  • Spinal Tap/Lumbar Puncture (LP): A procedure in which a needle is inserted into the lower spine to obtain spinal fluid.
  • Suctioning: the process of removing secretions from the baby’s nose, mouth or lungs by using either a bulb syringe or suction catheter.
  • Tachycardia: A fast heart rate.
  • Tachypnea: A fast breathing rate.
  • TPN or Total Parenteral Nutrition: A type of IV fluid that provides total nutrition to someone who cannot take any nourishment by mouth. TPN is nutrition outside of the digestive system. TPN contains sugars, electrolytes, vitamins, proteins, and can supply all of the nutrients that the body needs.
  • Ventilator (Vent): A machine that helps an infant breathe by pumping oxygen into a tube (called an ET tube) that goes into the lungs.
  • Warmer: Also known as a Radiant Warmer, an open bed allows maximum access to a sick or newly born infant. Radiant heaters above the bed keep the baby warm.
  • Wean: To take away gradually. In the NICU, it is often used to describe the process of removing an infant from a ventilator or incubator.

Learning your A, B, D’s (apnea, bradycardia, desats) will help you better understand your baby's journey through the NICU. You will soon, not only be accustomed to the lingo, but you too will be speaking this newfound language with ease. 

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