When your newborn needs special medical care
Posted on 1 November 2021
If your newborn needs special medical care, they’ll be in the safest possible hands in one of our 35 neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).
When babies are born prematurely, have a low birth weight or experience other health problems that put them at risk, they’re admitted to the NICU for specialised care. An expert team of doctors, nurses, and other dedicated medical specialists take a family-centred, holistic approach to care – as parents, you’re included in all decision-making and kept informed of every step in your baby’s treatment.
“A baby born prematurely hasn’t fully developed and may be unable to suck, swallow or breathe unassisted. They must be supported until all their organs are able to perform adequately,” explains Aliné Hall, Clinical Quality Specialist: Child Health for Mediclinic Southern Africa.
“From the day of admission into the NICU, the sole aim of the doctors and staff is to get your baby home to you. Your baby will need to grow, gain weight, be able to breathe on their own, feed well and maintain their body temperature in a normal room-temperature environment. Sometimes the road is rocky, with complications such as infection, anaemia, and feeding intolerance – but the staff will do their utmost to prevent these.”
Hall adds that NICUs contain high care, intensive care, and “growing” beds, and are equipped with the latest medical technology. Once in the NICU, your baby is nursed in a temperature-controlled incubator to prevent hypothermia and enable careful observation and monitoring.
Since preemies have an immature gut, all nutrition in the NICU is given intravenously first, Hall explains. “Feeds are slowly introduced via feeding tube, and increased as the baby tolerates this better.” The NICU team encourages and helps all new mothers to express their breastmilk, which is so vital for the babies’ wellbeing that it’s referred to as “liquid gold” in the unit.
Premature babies also have very thin, underdeveloped skin, so they lose heat quickly. “They’re placed in an incubator to assist with temperature control until they’re able to maintain it themselves as they grow,” Hall says. “Although all babies experience some normal jaundice [yellow skin], a premature baby’s liver is immature and may take longer to clear. In the NICU, they’ll be exposed to special phototherapy lights that help the process.”
Premature babies sometimes forget to breathe – a condition known as apnoea. They’re generally given a respiratory stimulant, usually caffeine, until the apnoea settles. “Small preterm babies are also more prone to brain bleeds due to very fragile vessels in their brain, and every precaution is taken to prevent this if possible,” Hall says.
Infection control measures
Parents can be assured that robust infection prevention and control measures are in place in the NICU and hand hygiene is strictly observed. Staff and visitor access is also limited to reduce the risk of infection.