The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is a place not many of us prepare ourselves to visit. It is often overwhelming to parents, and mysterious to extended family and friends. Because September is NICU Awareness month, we’d like to share some NICU facts to help family and friends learn more about the world of neonatal intensive care. If you’re expecting a baby, or if someone you care about has a child in the NICU, it can help to familiarize yourself with some of the terminology. The focus this week is on NICU staff. There are many professionals who dedicate themselves to healing and caring for premature babies and newborns in the NICU. Here are some of them and what they do:

Neonatologist – A neonatologist is a doctor who specializes in caring for newborns with medical conditions related to premature birth, illness, or injury. They are specially trained to diagnose and treat serious conditions in infants, and they work together with NICU nursing staff and specialists to plan and carry out treatments.

Neonatal Nurse Practitioner – NNPs are nurses who have completed advanced degrees in neonatal care and work with other providers to manage the care of newborns.

Neonatal Nurse – Neonatal nurses monitor and care for babies in the NICU, handling the routine tasks of feedings, diaper changes, respiratory treatments, etc. They also play a critical role in educating parents about their child’s condition and helping them learn how to care for their baby.

Social Worker – Social workers are key members of NICU care teams. They direct families to available services and can help parents navigate a very challenging time with links to physical, emotional, and financial support.

Lactation Consultant – While providing breast milk for babies in the NICU is often complicated by the baby’s condition, and sometimes the mother’s, human milk is incredibly beneficial to premature and ill newborns. Lactation consultants help mothers learn to express milk for their babies and breastfeed if and when the baby is ready to nurse directly.

Physical Therapist – Understanding how newborns move and react to the NICU environment is important for medical staff and parents. A physical therapist observes a baby’s position and movements to determine how best to reduce stress responses and encourage developmentally appropriate movements. They can also encourage parents who may be nervous about touching or holding their baby, and help them learn how to offer soothing care.

Occupational Therapist – An OT is another professional who helps babies learn to interact with their environments in positive ways, and educates parents about how to support their babies as they grow. Areas of focus may include parent-child bonding, physical positioning for the baby’s comfort and safety, and sensory development.

Speech/Language Therapist – While it may not be intuitive that newborns benefit from speech therapy, speech/language therapists have a very important job in the NICU. Premature babies often need help learning how to use their mouths, most importantly for feeding, but also in preparation for communication and eventually speech. A speech therapist may identify any feeding problems a baby might have, and provide oral stimulation to help the baby learn to latch for breast or bottle feeding.

Respiratory Therapist – When a baby is born early, one of the most immediate concerns is the child’s ability to breathe. A preemie’s lungs are less developed than full-term baby’s, so respiratory therapists provide life-saving interventions and monitoring to make sure babies get the oxygen they need, and eventually grow to breathe on their own.

Ophthalmologist – Premature birth affects the development of a baby’s whole body, including the eyes. An ophthalmologist will monitor a baby’s vision and treat any problems that may occur.

Dietician/Nutritionist – Premature babies have unique nutritional needs, and a dietician or nutritionist ensures babies get the nutrients they need to grow and develop. A neonatal dietician identifies a baby’s nutritional requirements, institutes a feeding plan, and monitors a baby’s growth and development.

Gastroenterologist – A newborn’s digestive system is very sensitive, and the healthy GI-tract is crucial to growth and development. A gastroenterologist will likely be involved in a baby’s care to monitor how the baby is digestive system is working, and treat any problems that may arise.

These are just some of the professionals routinely involved in a NICU baby’s care. Depending on a baby’s individual challenges, other specialists will likely be involved, including cardiologists, pulmonologists, neurologists, or infectious disease specialists. The number and variety of care providers might be overwhelming, but they all play important roles in caring for newborns and their families. Understanding their roles (and for parents, asking them questions) is an important step in becoming familiar with the NICU.