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What to Expect

If your baby has recently been admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at CHOC Children’s, you likely have a lot of questions about the care your child is receiving. The information below covers a lot of the basic questions our patients’ families ask. You may find this information helpful as you are learning more about your child’s care or explaining the NICU to your family and friends.

Developmental Care

There have been many advances in the care of sick and premature babies—not just in technology and medicine, but also in meeting their special emotional and developmental needs. In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), babies experience tests, procedures, noises and lights—all very different from the warm, dark, comfort of their mother’s womb. Some babies are too sick to be held or have difficulty comforting themselves when not being held. Premature babies especially need a supportive environment to help them continue to mature and develop as they would in their mother’s womb.

Developmental care is a very important part of the overall care we provide patients at CHOC Children’s. This type of care involves meeting comfort needs and helping babies feel secure, developing normal sleep patterns, and decreasing stimulation from noise, lights and procedures. The NICU multi-disciplinary staff strives to understand the individual needs and personality of each infant through the baby’s behaviors and responses.

Our NICU medical team makes every effort to:

Make treatments less stressful.

In order to make care and treatments less stressful for newborns, we make sure the treatments and assessments are performed as quietly and with as little light as possible. We also handle babies in special ways that have been found to decrease psychological and behavioral stress.

Keep babies positioned for their best comfort, growth and development.

Premature babies do not have the same muscle tone and strength to control movements of the arms, legs or head that full-term babies have. Babies are put into the best positions to protect sleep, promote joint protection and facilitate motor development. Our Giraffe beds are designed to minimize any unnecessary stimulation to our babies. The beds rotate 360°, can be lowered or elevated as needed, and slide out of the temperature-controlled microenvironment to make it easier to position the baby for all types of procedures without disturbing the infant. Giraffe beds have a special pressure-diffusing mattress that relieves pressure points and helps keep baby’s skin healthy and even have a built-in scale so that it is easy to track the baby’s growth.

Reduce sound and light.

Loud sounds are a concern because they may damage the baby’s developing ears and are a stress to the baby. Small babies are sensitive to light. Bright light may cause injury to the eye, can disturb body rhythms and sleep patterns and can keep the baby from opening his or her eyes and looking around.

Reduce the amount of times the baby is disturbed.

We group our care times to protect the baby’s sleep. It is during deep sleep that babies grow and heal. When awake, handling and movement is minimized to help the baby maintain a quiet, organized state and be able to return to sleep as soon as possible.

Work with parents so that they can be part of their baby’s care team.

It is important for the baby that the parents partner with the medical team and are involved in the daily care of their baby. Parents will become very aware of their baby’s cues with time and training and they can help direct the care and plan of their baby. Also, parents can participate in skin-to-skin holding which is a powerful tool for family bonding and will help the baby develop and grow strong.  Parents are an integral part of helping the baby learn to eat by mouth when they are medically ready.

Frequently Asked Questions about the NICU

Sometimes, newborns require special medical care right after birth. If a baby arrives too early or is born with certain health problems, he or she may need to be admitted to the NICU. Once in the NICU, newborns receive around-the-clock medical attention to help them survive. At CHOC, we are proud to offer level 4 care, the highest level care available. Many babies are transferred to CHOC from other hospitals so that they can receive the care that only a hospital like CHOC can offer.

CHOC’s NICU is located on the second floor of our hospital. Most babies will stay in the west wing of the unit. Babies born at 27 weeks gestation or earlier or weigh less than 1,000 grams will go to the east wing on the NICU, which is known as the Small Baby Unit. Learn more about the Small Baby Unit.
Most babies admitted to the NICU are premature (born before 37 weeks of pregnancy), have low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds) or have a medical condition that requires special care. Conditions that often require treatment in the NICU include:

• Kidneys and digestive tracts that don’t function well
• Breathing problems due to immature lungs
• Intestines damaged by infection
• Slow heart rate
• Fluid buildup on the brain
• A low red-blood-cell count
• Damage to the eyes

Twins, triplets and other multiples are also often admitted to the NICU, as they tend to be born earlier and smaller than single-birth babies.
Babies in the NICU may receive blood tests, X-rays and ultrasounds. These tests help doctors monitor the baby’s progress. Babies may be attached to some medical equipment and may need special medicine. Specific treatments and procedures will depend on the baby’s condition. Learn more about the state-of-the-art equipment available to CHOC patients.
Parents and legal guardians are welcome in the NICU any time and should wear their yellow armband at all times while on campus. The information on the band gives the staff the permission required to provide medical information about the baby to the parent. The armband also allows NICU parents to exit the parking structure without charge. In addition to the armband, parents need proof of ID to get a badge from the front desk security each time they arrive at the hospital. Badges must be visible at all times while on campus.
Siblings, other family members and friends may visit the NICU anytime, with the exception of 6:30-8, both a.m. and p.m. We ask that each patient only have up to three people at the bedside at all times, including the parents or legal guardian. A family lounge and waiting area, with a television, pay phone and restrooms is available just outside the unit.

Siblings two and a half years and older who are feeling well and are free of cold, cough, fever or any communicable disease are welcomed in the unit. A health screening and verification of current immunizations will be required in advance and each time the sibling enters the unit. CHOC does not offer childcare, but in some cases may be able to assist families in making arrangements with a local care provider.
Although parents and legal guardians are welcome at the NICU around the clock, it is important to note that we do not provide accommodations for parents to sleep by the bedside unless the child is in a private room for “rooming in” prior to discharge home. (“Rooming in” provides parents the opportunity to stay the night with their baby and prepare for what life will be like once the baby gets home, while getting assistance from the nurses and other medical staff.) We are unable to provide showers for parents in the NICU.

Located a few blocks from the hospital, the 20-bedroom Orange County Ronald McDonald House is a place where parents can rest without being far from CHOC. A social worker can assist with more information on accommodations.
Yes. At CHOC Children’s we encourage all mothers to breastfeed or pump breast milk for their children. Although not all babies may be able to consume mother’s milk at birth, our goal is that all babies will eventually get breast milk. We encourage mothers to pump and store their milk. Pumping rooms are available in the unit, as are portable pumps so that you may pump at your baby’s bedside. Our Nutrition Lab is equipped to store and track your breast milk for you. Learn more about breastfeeding while your baby is in the NICU.
Finding out your baby will have to spend time in the NICU is never easy. Many parents worry that their baby will not be able to bond with them. At CHOC, our focus is on patient- and family-centered care and we believe a child’s parents or guardians are important partners in the care we provide. Babies, even those connected to machines, have very positive responses to their parents’ closeness—whether it is a gentle caress with a fingertip or skin-to-skin cuddling. We are so committed to patient- and family-centered care that we have developed the Parenting in the NICU Guide with advice, information and support most helpful for NICU moms, dads and extended family. Learn more about parenting in the NICU.
Cellular phones may interfere with medical equipment. For this reason, cellular phones must be turned off while in the NICU. Our Patient and Family Care Center is able to provide laptops with internet connection for use while in the NICU. Speak with the NICU’s family liaison or a social worker for more information.
For safety reasons, we do not allow food in the NICU. However, CHOC offers two full-service cafeterias located in our North Tower and Holmes Tower of our hospital. CHOC North Cafe hours of operation are 6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. CHOC Holmes Cafe hours of operation are 6:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Both serve hot entrees, deli sandwiches, salads, beverages and desserts for eating in or taking out. Hot breakfast is available 6:30 a.m.-10 a.m., lunch is available 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and dinner is available in the North Cafe only 4 p.m-7 p.m. Vending machines and microwaves are also available. Refrigeration is not available to store food. We encourage you to use the cafeteria meals and snacks because while you help us care for your baby, it is very important that you take care of yourself too.
Although we do provide basic clothing for infants in the NICU, your baby’s nurse will let you know when and what types of clothes you may bring for your baby. Our staff will be careful with your personal clothing, but from time to time items can get lost. Please do not bring anything of sentimental value. You are welcome to bring pictures, bright toys and blankets to personalize your baby’s bedside. Flowers and balloons are not permitted on the NICU floor due to patient safety.

What You Need to Know

Admission to the NICU


Choosing Your NICU Surrogates


Cell Phone Use in the NICU


Sights and Sounds in the NICU


Who's Who in the NICU


Discharge from the NICU


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UC Irvine

CHOC Children's is affiliated with the UC Irvine School of Medicine