e. Common health conditions treated in the NICU

You may find it helpful to know more about some of the common health conditions treated in the NICU.

Birth defects

What it is: Health conditions that are present at birth. They change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. Birth defects can cause problems in overall health, in how the body develops or in how the body works. The most common birth defects are heart defects, cleft lip and cleft palate, Down syndrome and spina bifida.

Tests and treatment: Treatment is different depending on the birth defect.  


What it is: When a baby has low blood sugar levels after birth.

Tests and treatment: Sick babies and babies born to mothers with diabetes (a condition in which there is too much sugar in the blood) have their blood sugar levels checked to see if they have this condition. Feeding the baby with a sugar solution through an IV (also called intravenous line, a small tube put in a baby’s vein to give fluids or medicine) helps prevent and treat this condition in the NICU. 


What it is: When a baby’s eyes and skin look yellow. A baby has jaundice when his liver (an organ that helps digest food, store energy, and remove harmful substances from the body) isn’t fully developed or isn’t working. When this happens bilirubin (a yellowish waste that forms when red blood cells break down) builds up in the blood. 

Tests and treatment: Blood tests that measure bilirubin are done to check for jaundice. In most cases, jaundice goes away without treatment and doesn’t hurt the baby or cause pain.  If a baby has a serious case of jaundice, her provider may suggest phototherapy. This treatment uses special lights called bililights that reduce the amount of bilirubin in a baby’s blood. These bright lights are placed over the baby’s incubator (a clear plastic bed where a baby is put to keep warm); the baby wears eyeshields to keep the light out of his eyes. Sometimes phototherapy is done using a pad or blanket made with special lights that’s placed underneath or wrapped around the baby.

If the jaundice does not get better, then the baby may need an exchange transfusion. This means small amounts of the baby’s blood is taken out and replaced with blood from a donor to reduce the bilirubin. 


What it is: A serious blood infection (an illness of the blood you get from some viruses, bacteria or other germs). Many babies have trouble fighting off germs that cause sepsis.

Tests and treatments: If a baby has problems controlling his body temperature, high or low blood sugar levels, breathing problems or low blood pressure (the force of blood that pushes against the walls of the arteries), NICU staff may do lab tests and X-rays (a test that uses small amounts of radiation to take pictures of the inside of the body) to check for sepsis. Providers give antibiotics (medicines that kill infections caused by bacteria) to a baby with sepsis. They watch her closely to make sure she responds to the medicine and gets better. 

Transient tachypnea of the newborn

What it is: Also called TTN. When a baby has trouble breathing after being born. Babies with TTN breathe faster than normal, and they may make a grunting sound.

Tests and treatment: Providers use blood tests and X-rays (a test that uses small amounts of radiation to take pictures of the inside of the body) to check for TTN. Treatment includes providing oxygen (a gas that the body needs to function), using a mask or a continuous positive airway pressure machine (also called CPAP) to help the baby breathe better. The CPAP machine sends air into the lungs (an organ that takes in oxygen from the air and delivers it to the bloodstream) through small tubes put in the baby’s nose or windpipe. Once TTN goes away, most babies get better quickly and don’t have other breathing problems. 


So here I am, a new father, and it’s nothing like I expected. My daughter is hooked up to so many machines, it scares me. She looks so small and helpless in the big NICU room under the blue bililight. I want to hold her in my arms, but I’ll settle for reaching my hand in and just touching her. 

They tell us she will only stay in the NICU a week. A week’s not so bad, I tell my wife (and myself). We can do this. Our daughter is tough, and one day we’ll look back and be amazed at how small she once was. 

— Jay, dad to a baby girl with jaundice