Why are incubators important for babies in the NICU?
The NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) is a comprehensive care unit where babies with serious health problems or who are born prematurely stay to receive individualized care prior to being released from the hospital. Reasons to enter the NICU vary for each baby, and not all conditions are the same.
The NICU involves a wide variety of equipment to assist with infants’ health, but incubators are some of the most valuable resources for them to help survive. An incubator is a bed made of plastic that helps provide warmth to your baby. Incubators are clear and have tiny holes on the sides where you can touch your baby.
What makes incubators so special? Dr. Jeffrey George, medical director of neonatology at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill, discusses the significance of incubators for babies in the NICU.
“Newborns infants, especially when born prematurely, are prone to hypothermia because they have difficulty regulating their own body temperature, and their bodies do not have a lot of subcutaneous fat to protect them from the cold environment.”
He adds hypothermia can lead to harmful complications, such as low tissue oxygen, hypoglycemia, breathing difficulty, excessive calorie loss and impaired growth.
In a 2009 study from the journal of Perinatal Medicine, researchers note newborns and critically ill babies are more at risk for temperature related issues; they often cannot contain as much heat because of their small weight and reduced fat.
“Incubators ensure an infant’s temperature is maintained in the optimal range, thus preventing hypothermia and any of its potentially harmful complications. The incubator’s unique temperature control features allow the infant’s temperature to be controlled either manually by the healthcare provider or through automatic adjustments based on changes in the infant’s temperature,” says Dr. George.
Additionally, an incubator provides humidity, in turn, helping infants maintain skin integrity, he says. But incubators don’t just help with maintaining an infant’s temperature. Dr. George explains they are extremely important for the overall care because they create a combination of a “controlled and ideal environment” for observation and easy access in addition to promoting growth and development.
Noise in the NICU also plays a significant role with infants in incubators. The devices assist with tuning out excessive sounds, such as loud monitors and equipment along with commotion. These factors can spike an increase in sleep interruptions, blood pressure rises and unnecessary stress, explains the study. Therefore, incubators help shield this extra noise, allowing infants to further develop.
Another benefit? Incubators benefit infants’ exposure to extra light, says Dr. George. Sometimes, bright lighting in the NICU can negatively impact infants’ sensitive and fragile bodies. Incubators reduce direct light exposure to babies by often using “incubator covers” to prevent this extra lighting from creating strain.
Most importantly, “Incubators have truly been a technological medical advancement that has helped save the lives of many preterm infants,” Dr. George emphasizes.
Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital recently opened their state-of-the-art level III NICU, which provides the highest level of care for premature and critically care infants. The unit is six times larger than before, which allows up to 24 newborns to be cared for. The facility has specially trained neonatologists, nurses, therapists and staff along with the latest neonatal technology and monitoring. There are ten private rooms, one isolation room as well as overnight accommodations for parents, including a family lounge, kitchenette and lactation room.
About the Author
Kelsey Andeway, health e-news contributor, is a public affairs intern at Advocate Health Care in Downers Grove. She is a senior at Loyola University Chicago earning a bachelor's degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Dance. In her free time, Kelsey enjoys dancing, baking, and taking long walks with her Chocolate Lab.