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Understanding NICU and SCN terminology

Understanding NICU special care nursery terminologyIf you’ve given birth to a premature baby, you’ve probably heard of some of these terms.

Maybe you have a friend who had a premmie, and noticed some of these terms, but don’t want to ask them exactly what everything means.

Understanding Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Special Care Nursery (SCN) terminology can help make such a stressful time a little better if doctors or nurses are saying things that don’t quite make sense to you.

You can most definitely ask your doctor or nurse what these terms mean – but if you’re just overhearing them talking, or the terms aren’t being used about your premmie baby, it can help to see them written down where you can look in your own time.

Most common terminology you might hear in the NICU or SCN


Too few red blood cells. Anaemic babies may need blood transfusions.


A short period of time when the baby does not take a breath.


The drawing in of foreign matter or other material in the upper respiratory tract into the lungs. Aspiration also refers to a medical procedure in which fluids are sucked out of the lungs, nose, or mouth using a suction device.


A doctor or nurse/midwife uses a special hand held apparatus for a short interval to help your baby breathe.


A chemical created by the breakdown of the red blood cells. A large amount of this bilirubin in the body causes yellow coloring of the skin and eyes (jaundice). Nearly all babies have some jaundice, including healthy full-term babies.

Bilirubin lights (bili lights)

Fluorescent lights that reduce jaundice; help break down the bilirubin in the skin. Baby is undressed to expose as much skin surface as possible; the baby’s eyes are covered with patches or a mask. Also called phototherapy.

Blood gas

A test using a small amount of blood to measure levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.


A slower than normal heartbeat; often occurs with apnoea.


A tube which puts fluids into the body or drains fluids out.

Chest tube

A tube inserted through the chest wall; used to suction air and/or fluids from the chest.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

A continuous amount of air, sometimes with added oxygen, is delivered through tubes in the baby’s nose to keep the airways of the lungs open as baby breathes.


Taking a sample of blood or body fluids to test for germs which may cause an infection.


A bluish coloring of the skin and lips caused by a low level of oxygen in the blood.


A sensor which sends heartbeat and breathing information to the monitor. They can be placed on the chest, arms, or legs. Also called leads.


Sodium, potassium, and chloride levels in the blood. Correct levels of these chemicals must be present so that the body organs can function properly.

Endotracheal tube (ET tube)

A plastic tube inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea (windpipe) to help breathing; usually connected to a breathing machine (ventilator).


The process of removing an endotracheal tube.

Nasogastric tube (NG tube)

A tube inserted through the nose or mouth (orogastric or OG) and into the stomach. The tube delivers nutrients and medications, and removes undigested food and fluids from the stomach.

Gavage feeding

Feeding a baby through a gastric tube inserted into the stomach.

Gestational age

The length of time from conception to birth (how long the baby stays in the womb). Full-term gestation is between 38 and 42 weeks.

Hyaline membrane disease (HMD)

A breathing problem that causes the tiny air sacs in the lungs to collapse; usually due to lung immaturity and lack of a natural lung chemical (surfactant). Also called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS).


Excess spinal fluid causing enlargement of the ventricles in the brain.


A small, heated bed enclosed in clear plastic. Keeps the baby warm, while allowing caregivers see the baby.

Intraventricular haemorrhage (IVH)

Bleeding within the brain’s ventricles (spaces in the brain which contain spinal fluid). Also called intracranial haemorrhage (bleeding in or around the brain).

Intravenous (IV)

Into a vein. The term IV is often used when a cannula is placed into a vein to administer medications or fluids.


Placing a tube through the nose or mouth into the trachea (windpipe).


The yellow discoloration of a baby’s skin and eyes caused by too much bilirubin in the blood.

Kangaroo Care

Skin-to-skin contact where baby is positioned on mum or dad’s bare chest to promote bonding and healing.


The first bowel movement/stool passed by a newborn, usually dark green and sticky.

Nasal Canula

A small plastic tube placed under the nose to provide oxygen.

Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)

A bowel condition caused by lack of blood supply. A section of the bowel may become severely inflamed or infected.


A physician who specializes in the care of critically ill newborn infants.

Oxygen saturation

The level of oxygen in a baby’s blood. Oxygen level is measured by a small probe on the baby’s hand or foot, also by blood samples. This level tells at-a-glance how well oxygen is being carried through the body.

Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA)

A small vessel (ductus) between the major arteries of the heart and the lungs. Before birth, this vessel is open and allows blood to bypass the lungs (not yet in use). When this opening fails to close after birth, it can cause problems with oxygen rich blood getting to the body.


See bilirubin lights.

Pneumothorax (pneumo)

Air escapes from the lung into the chest cavity, creating a pocket of air in the wrong place. This pocket of air then presses on the lungs or heart. A chest tube or catheter can be inserted to remove the pocket of air, which lets the lungs re-expand.

Pulse oximeter

An electronic monitor that detects oxygen saturation in the blood using a light sensor probe.

Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS)

See hyaline membrane.

Retinopathy Of Prematurity (ROP)

An eye disorder, involving the retina that can occur in premature infants.

Room air

The ordinary air we breathe which contains 21% oxygen. Oxygen therapy can deliver from 22 – 100% oxygen.

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Special Care Nursery


An infection caused by bacteria.

Spinal tap

The removal of a small amount of fluid from the spinal canal. The fluid is then analyzed for infection, bleeding, and other disorders.


A substance in the lungs that helps keep the tiny air sacs from collapsing and sticking together. A lack of this substance contributes to Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS).

Umbilical Catheter, Arterial or Venous (UAC, UVC)

A tube inserted through the belly button (umbilical cord) into the arterial or venous blood vessels. Either tube is used to give the baby fluids and to draw blood samples. The UAC is used to monitor the baby’s blood pressure. If the baby requires oxygen therapy, the UAC will be used to draw blood gases and blood samples.


A machine which fills the baby’s lungs with air and helps the baby breathe. Also called a respirator.

NOTE: The material provided here is for informational purposes only and should not replace, or be used as a substitute for, professional medical advice.


– this information was kindly supplied by the National Premmie Foundation

Image credit:plepraisaeng/123RF Stock Photo

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