What Is Neonatology Anyway?
By Richard C. Lussky, M.D.
Neonatology is the medical specialty of taking care of newborn babies, sick babies, and premature babies. A neonatologist is a doctor that specializes in the field of neonatology. So... "Neonatologist" is basically a fancy technical term for "baby doctor."
What Is a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit?
A Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a special area of the hospital that is devoted to the care of critically ill babies. Typically a NICU is completely separated from the nursery for healthy newborns, and may not even be in the same building.
In most hospitals, babies are only admitted to the NICU directly from the delivery room, or from another hospital's NICU. For reasons of infection control, if a baby has gone home and then gotten sick and come back to the hospital, the baby will probably be admitted to a pediatric ward or pediatric intensive care unit rather than the NICU. Of course, exceptions can be made if the baby has a problem that definitely requires the constant attention of a neonatologist.
Babies usually stay in the NICU until they are ready to go home, even if that takes several months. This is much different than an adult or pediatric intensive care unit, where the patient will leave the unit as soon as they are stable and do not need help with their breathing and constant monitoring. For this reason, NICUs are often divided by walls or partitions into several distinct regions: a true "intensive care" area where the nurses and doctors spend most of their time at the babies' bedsides, an "intermediate care" area for babies that are still on IVs or extra oxygen, and a quieter area for the "growers."
What Kinds Of Problems Do Babies Have?
In most neonatal intensive care units, about half of the babies that are admitted to the unit are full-term babies (born after 37 weeks) and the other half are premature babies -- babies that were born too early (before 37 weeks gestation).