How an Incubator Works in the NICU

4lb and 5oz newborn baby in incubator

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Premature babies, also known as preemies, are those that are born before the mother has reached 37 weeks of gestation. Simply put, they are born too soon before certain key organs are able to develop. Depending on how premature the baby is, he or she may have an underdeveloped digestive tract, lungs, immune system, and even skin.

To help these babies survive outside of the womb, they will be placed in an apparatus known as an incubator which provides the newborn the environmental conditions needed to thrive while in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

What Incubators Do

An incubator is a self-contained unit roughly the size of a standard crib equipped with a clear plastic dome. Because preemies lack body fat and skin integrity, they are less able to regulate their own body temperature. To this end, the incubator ensures the ideal environmental conditions by either allowing the temperature to be adjusted manually or providing auto-adjustments based on changes in the baby's temperature.

But this is not its only function an incubator serves. An incubator also protects the preemie from infection, allergens, or excessive noise or light levels that can cause harm. It can regulate air humidity to maintain the integrity of the skin and even be equipped with special lights to treat neonatal jaundice common in newborns.

Types of Incubator

There are different types of incubators that can accommodate the changing needs of the preemie. Among the 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.

Incubator temperatures can vary based on the gestational age, 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.

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 find yourself physically separated. To this end, most incubators today have openings on the side which allow parents skin-to-skin contact. As such, no matter how heartrending a separation may be, the incubator provides your preemie the best opportunity to grow into the healthy, happy baby you've always dreamed of.

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  1. 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

Additional Reading
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017) NICU Journal: A Parent's Journey. Elk Grove Village, Illinois: American Academy of Pediatrics. ISBN 978-1-61002-178-4.