newborn baby in nicu

Bringing a baby into the world is one of the happiest moments for any family. However, some babies need extra care after birth.

A Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) helps babies who need extra care. There are different levels of NICUs available, depending on the baby’s needs.

Never Miss a Beat!

Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!

Message and data rates may apply. Text the word STOP to opt out and HELP for help. Click here to view the privacy and terms.

What Is a NICU?

A NICU provides around-the-clock, specialized care for babies who are ill or born prematurely. About 10 to 15% of babies born each year are admitted to the NICU.

Many reasons can lead to a baby being admitted to the NICU. This may include prematurity, difficulty breathing, low blood sugar, or complications during delivery.

Some babies may require help with feedings, breathing support, intravenous (IV) fluids or medications, and support after advanced surgical procedures. The care a baby needs will determine the level of NICU the baby will be admitted to.

The NICU care team can include many different providers, all specialized in caring for newborns:

  • Pediatricians.
  • Neonatologists (pediatricians who are specialized in caring for newborns).
  • Neonatal nurse practitioners.
  • Neonatal physician assistants.
  • Registered nurses.
  • Respiratory therapists.
  • Pediatric medical subspecialists.
  • Pediatric surgical specialists.
  • Maternal fetal medicine specialists.
  • Occupational therapists.
  • Physical therapists.
  • Nutritionists.
  • Developmentalists.
  • Social workers.
  • Neonatal transport team members.

The specific members of the team depend on the NICU level of care provided.

A baby’s stay in the NICU can last anywhere from under a day to several months, depending on how sick they are.

NICU Care Levels

The American Academy of Pediatrics defines multiple levels of NICU care. Premature or sick newborns should be taken to a NICU that can provide the appropriate level of care for their needs.

Level I well newborn NICU

A Level I unit provides basic care for well newborns. These nurseries provide care for healthy newborns born close to their due date.

A Level I well newborn nursery also can stabilize sick or premature babies until they can be safely transferred to more specialized nurseries.

Level II NICU or special care nursery

A Level II NICU provides advanced care to sick newborns or premature babies born at 32 weeks or later and who weigh more than 1,500 grams, or about 3.3 pounds. These NICUs can also care for babies recovering from more serious conditions.

Level II NICUs take care of babies who are moderately ill, with problems that are expected to resolve quickly without requiring urgent subspecialty care.

Services in a Level II NICU may include respiratory support, feeding assistance, treating infections, and more.

A Level II NICU also can stabilize babies born at less than 32 weeks or with medical conditions that require transfer to a higher level NICU.


A Level III NICU provides intensive care to seriously ill newborns or babies born extremely premature or at extremely low birth weight.

These NICUs can provide sustained life support, including a full range of respiratory support such as assisted ventilation. They can also have access to pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists.

A Level III NICU also can stabilize babies that require advanced imaging or complex surgical procedures that require transfer to a Level IV NICU.

Level IV NICUs

Level IV NICUs, such as the one at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, provide the highest level of newborn care.

These NICUs provide state-of-the-art care to critically ill newborns who require advanced, complex surgical procedures, including heart surgery for babies born with congenital heart disease.

They also can provide treatments, such as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). This is an advanced life support technique for babies with life-threatening heart and/or lung problems.

What Care Can You Expect from a NICU?

Having a baby who may need extra care after birth can be a scary experience. The NICU’s care team will be there at every step of this difficult experience, to provide the baby and the family with expert and compassionate care.

When a newborn needs to go to the NICU, the care team at UPMC Magee explains the situation as fully as possible. They tell families what’s happening and explain procedures for care, along with NICU policies like visitation.

They let them know their baby is getting 24-hour monitoring and is in good hands, providing support at a difficult time.

UPMC offers care for women and newborns across our communities. To find a doctor near you, visit us online.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Levels of Neonatal Care.

March of Dimes, Fighting Premature Birth: The Prematurity Campaign. Link

March of Dimes, The Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Link

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.