A neonatal intensive care unit, commonly referred to as a NICU, is a special unit in a hospital dedicated to caring for premature or ill newborns. Staff members in NICUs typically have specialized training that enables them to care for these tiniest of patients.

Babies who are admitted to the NICU usually have not even gone home yet after birth, so babies brought to the ER are not generally admitted to the NICU. Usually, infants go to the NICU right at or shortly after birth, for example, if they are born prematurely or if they seem to be having difficulty breathing on their own. The level of NICU a baby is sent to depends on the nature of their condition as well as their size and gestational age.

Unlike a baby born full-term or without difficulties who will be visited by your designated pediatrician, babies in the NICU are generally cared for by specialists called neonatologists. These doctors have specialized training for dealing with infants born too early (premature babies) or those born with complications. A neonatologist receives three additional years of special training on top of medical school and a pediatric residency.

Neonatologists are trained to handle a wide range of complications including premature lungs and babies unable to breathe or eat on their own, congenital defects including heart defects, pneumonia or other problems, birth canal injuries, and many others. These issues fall outside the scope of a typical pediatric practice, though once baby goes home, your regular pediatrician will do the follow-up.

While having a baby admitted to a NICU can be a terrifying experience for new parents, the special training of the nursing staff and support staff will ensure they will try to make the experience as supportive as possible for parents and family. Additionally, while you may feel close to or comfortable to your pediatrician, the special training of a neonatologist will ensure your baby has the best care.


  • NICUs have different levels of designation, depending on the type of care they can offer.
  • Staff in these nurseries have specialized training to care for the infants there.
  • Neonatologists complete a residency of three years covering only neonatology, in addition to medical school and a regular pediatric residency.
  • After leaving the NICU, your baby will have regular follow-ups with your pediatrician.


  1. Neonatology on the web. A Career in Neonatology.
  2. Wesley Medical Center. What to ask your Pediatrician.


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