Surgical NICU

When it comes to surgery, babies present a unique challenge because of their small size and complex conditions. Their health can change in an instant, requiring quick action and expertise. No other hospital in the region is prepared to meet this challenge like CHOC. We proudly offer the only Surgical Neonatal Intensive Care Unit on the West Coast, providing highly specialized care for babies who need surgery.

The Surgical NICU brings every member of the care team together to follow a coordinated plan for babies, and provide a seamless experience for families. This coordinated effort is backed by national-level research and quality improvement efforts, all of which has led to better patient outcomes.

Ready for the Call

Some conditions that require surgery may be identified before your baby is born. OB/GYN specialists or perinatologists who identify a problem may make a referral to our Surgical NICU team. We will meet one-on-one with your family, along with our top specialists, to review your baby’s condition and plan for a surgery that will take place after your baby is born. For prenatal consultations, please call 714-364-4050.

CHOC also has a specialized Transport Team to transfer babies from other hospitals if needed. To consult with our team or schedule a transport, referring hospitals may call the CHOC NICU at 714-509-8540.

Ambulances parked outside emergency entrance

An Expert Team Approach

Our multidisciplinary team includes pediatric-trained surgeons, neonatologists and anesthesiologists who collaborate at a level not seen at most hospitals. The team also includes a dedicated neonatal nurse practitioner, anesthesiologists, specialized nurses, respiratory therapists, dietitians, pharmacists, speech therapists, occupational and physical therapists, social workers and case managers.

The team rounds jointly and discusses every baby’s care as a group, forming a treatment plan that may also call on the expertise of other specialty areas of the hospital. We believe in patient- and family-centered care, which means parents and families are also vital members of the team and are partners in every stage of their baby’s care.

Our surgeons represent virtually every specialty, including general and thoracic surgery, cardiac surgery, gastrointestinal (GI) surgery, neurosurgery, urological surgery, otolaryngological (ENT) surgery, plastic surgery, ophthalmologic surgery and orthopaedic surgery. In addition to dedicated clinical programs for congenital diaphragmatic hernia, short bowel syndrome and mandibular distraction, we treat the full spectrum of neonatal conditions:

Surgery is performed in CHOC’s state-of-the-art operating rooms, or in the Surgical NICU. Critical technology is readily available, including extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) and high-frequency ventilation. The Surgical NICU team is always in close communication with the operating room and anesthesia teams about each baby’s care plan. Unique processes and protocols have been developed to address pain management, recovery from anesthesia and hypothermia prevention.

A trained rehabilitation team is also available to assist babies with the challenges that can follow surgery, including wound healing and developmental therapy for physical, motor and feeding skills.

After surgery, babies recover in the Surgical NICU for as long as necessary in a comfortable space that promotes healing and low stress. As a baby heals and becomes stabilized, we encourage parents and families to hold, feed and care for them just as they would at home. Learn more about parenting in the NICU.

Leading the Way

Irfan Ahmad MD, Neonatologist

Dr. Irfan Ahmad, Neonatologist



Mustafa Kabeer MD, Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgeon

Dr. Mustafa Kabeer, Pediatric General and Thoracic Surgeon

Dr. Irfan Ahmad is the medical director of the Surgical NICU and is board certified in neonatology. He has expertise in diagnosing and treating various medical and surgical conditions in premature and mature babies. He has been with CHOC for seven years and also serves as an associate clinical professor of pediatrics with academic appointment at UC Irvine Health. Dr. Ahmad emphasizes the importance of having a unit dedicated to surgical care for babies because of their unique needs and challenges. The unit also provides a foundation for staff to refine the most proven techniques in caring for babies, rather than using techniques meant for older children. “I am dedicated to providing the very best evidence-based care by effective team-building, communication, education and most of all, care and compassion for babies and their families.” Learn more about Dr. Ahmad.

Dr. Mustafa Kabeer is the surgical director of the Surgical NICU. “My role is to contribute surgical and critical care expertise from a surgical perspective. This provides insight into the nuances of surgical procedures not fully realized and appreciated by non-surgeons. This, combined with the medical management expertise from neonatology, yields a unique blend that allows for total care of these babies at a level surpassing the ability of any single service to be able to provide,” he says. Dr. Kabeer has fellowship training in pediatric surgery as well as pediatric surgical critical care combined with experience working as a neonatal hospitalist, all driving his philosophy to work on collaborative relationships that greatly benefits patients. “I am passionate because this type of program exists for adults and has done so for over half a century. It has been proven to improve communication and provide better care and outcomes for critically ill adults. Yet, it is still a novel idea for neonates and premature babies even though they tend to have the most significant physiological changes and are the most fragile and susceptible. We need to be committed to providing our sickest and smallest babies with the best coordinated care we can provide.” Learn more about Dr. Kabeer.

When Your Baby Needs Surgery

Will Your Newborn Need Surgery? Plan Now
Some babies are born with complex conditions requiring surgery during the first few hours following birth. From the moment prenatal testing reveals an abnormality, CHOC is ready to help.

Mandibular Distraction
Our Surgical NICU is one of the few places in the country that performs mandibular distraction, a process of lengthening a baby's jaw to improve breathing and feeding. Learn more about mandibular distraction.

Pioneers in Coordinated Treatment
What makes CHOC's Surgical NICU so special? Learn about better outcomes, current research projects and more in this blog post.

When Your Baby Needs Surgery
Babies with surgical needs require special attention. Get advice from our experts for preparing your infant for surgery in this health feature at

Alicia's Story

Little Alicia was born at full term, beautiful with 10 fingers, 10 toes and a life-threatening defect buried inside her tiny chest. Alicia had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a condition wherein a hole in the diaphragm allows abdominal organs to move into the chest. And this case was especially serious.

Alicia in the surgical nicu