What Parents Need to Know About NICU Incubators for Babies

Incubators help premature babies survive outside the womb

4lb and 5oz newborn baby in incubator

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Premature babies, also known as preemies, are born before 37 weeks of gestation. Many preemies, and other newborns with health conditions, need to be cared for in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). While there, they usually spend most of their time in an incubator. A NICU incubator helps provide a baby with the environmental conditions they need to thrive.

What Is a NICU Incubator?

An incubator is a self-contained unit roughly the size of a standard crib and covered with a clear plastic dome. It provides a safe, temperature-controlled environment for a baby that needs NICU care.

Why Babies Need an Incubator

We often think of incubators (and NICUs in general) as being just for premature babies. While many babies in the NICU are there because of premature birth, there are other reasons a baby might need an incubator.

  • Breathing problems (caused by prematurity or by fluid or meconium in the lungs): A baby might need an incubator while they are treated for breathing issues.
  • Gestational diabetes: Babies born to parents with gestational diabetes may need help with temperature regulation and breathing.
  • Infection: If a baby is born with or contracts an infection, an incubator can help protect them while they are healing.
  • Low birth weight: A baby that is not born prematurely, but is small (under 5.5 pounds), may have needs similar to a premature baby.
  • Surgery or trauma: If a newborn or young baby needs surgery, or experiences trauma (such as a difficult delivery), they may need to recover in an incubator.

What Incubators Do for Babies

Incubators are just one of the ways that NICUs provide care for preemies and other sick babies. A baby needs an incubator because it is a safe, controlled environment that supports their growth and healing.

Temperature Regulation

Because preemies lack body fat and skin integrity, they are less able to regulate their own body temperature. An incubator helps keep a baby warm. Incubator temperatures can vary based on the baby's gestational age (how many weeks' gestation they were at birth), the functional state of the baby's lungs, and other health complications.

Generally speaking, the NICU is kept to a temperature of 82 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, while the incubator is typically set so that the baby can maintain a body temperature of between 95 and 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

The NICU incubator's temperature can be adjusted manually. Or, some incubators adjust automatically based on changes in the baby's body temperature.

Humidification

Temperature control is not a hospital incubator's only function. A preemie's skin is very thin and delicate because it is still developing. The skin doesn't reach a fully mature state until 34 weeks' gestation, and many preemies are born before that. An incubator regulates air humidity to maintain the integrity of the skin.

Protection From Irritants

Premature or ill babies are more susceptible to infections and they can be sensitive to noise and bright lights. An incubator protects babies from infection, allergens, and excessive noise or light levels that can cause harm.

Treatment

In addition to its protective qualities, a NICU incubator can provide treatment. It can be equipped with special lights to treat neonatal jaundice common in newborns.

Types of NICU Incubators

Preemies and other NICU babies have different needs, and their needs change as they grow. Different types of incubators can accommodate these changing needs. There are five types commonly found in the NICU.

  • Closed box incubators have a fresh air filtration system that minimizes the risk of infection and prevents the loss of moisture from the air.
  • Double-walled incubators have two walls that can further prevent heat and air moisture loss.
  • Open box incubators, also known as Armstrong incubators, provide radiant heat below the baby but are otherwise open to the air, allowing for easy access.
  • Portable incubators, also known as transport incubators, are used to move the newborn from one part of the hospital to another.
  • Servo-control incubators are automatically programmed to adjust temperature and humidity levels based on skin sensors attached to the baby.

If Your Baby Requires an Incubator

If you're a new parent whose baby has been placed in an incubator, it may be distressing to see—and even more difficult to be physically separated from your baby.

The good news is that most NICU incubators have openings on the side which allow parents to touch their babies. Eventually, your baby will be well enough to come out of the incubator for skin-to-skin contact.

A Word From Verywell

It's hard to see your baby attached to wires, tubes, and sensors and placed behind a plastic barrier. But remember, a NICU incubator provides your preemie the best opportunity to grow into the healthy, happy baby you've always dreamed of.

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4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Meconium aspiration syndrome.

  2. Stanford Children's Health. Infant of a mother with diabetes.

  3. Ahmad I, Nemet D, Eliakim A, et al. Body composition and its components in preterm and term newborns: A cross-sectional, multimodal investigationAm J Hum Biol. 2010;22(1):69–75. doi:10.1002/ajhb.20955

  4. Oranges T, Dini V, Romanelli M. Skin physiology of the neonate and infant: Clinical implications. Adv Wound Care (New Rochelle). 2015;4(10):587-595. https://doi.org/10.1089/wound.2015.0642

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