Equipment on the baby unit

Being inside the baby unit can be overwhelming. Here we explain what the equipment in the baby unit does and how it helps your baby.

There is lots of equipment in the baby unit and these can make various sounds, which can seem alarming at first. Here we explain what this equipment does. The staff on the unit can also answer any questions you have about what is being used to monitor your baby and their care, which may make you feel more comfortable.

“I would advise parents that they shouldn't focus too much on the machines and that they don’t need to be constantly at them or pay attention to the noises they make. Ask the NICU team what they mean, but remember that the important thing is to focus on your baby. If the team aren't worried you don't need to be!”



An incubator is a self-contained unit which helps keep your baby warm. The incubator may be open, with an overhead heater or heated mattress, or it may be closed with a lid. It allows the healthcare team to control the temperature, humidity and oxygen levels around your baby. Incubators have small doors on the sides, which can be opened to put your hands in and touch your baby.   

Ambient oxygen analyser

This is a small machine that sits inside the incubator to make sure there is enough oxygen in the air.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)

A CPAP machine is used to support your baby’s breathing. The machine pushes a positive pressure of air, with or without extra oxygen, through a mask into your baby’s airway, which helps to keep the airway open. Your baby will wear a special hat to hold the CPAP mask and tubing in place.

Endotracheal tube and mechanical ventilation

This tube is connected to a machine called a ventilator which supports your baby’s breathing by blowing air, with or without extra oxygen, into the lungs. The air passes from the machine through the tube that is placed into your baby’s windpipe through their nose or mouth.  

The machine does most or all of the breathing for the baby. There is a monitor attached to this machine. The monitor is quite complicated, so try not to worry about it too much. If you have any questions about this your doctor or nurse can explain more. 

Humidified high-flow nasal cannula (HHFNC)

This is a type of breathing support that your baby may need. It is designed to give air, with or without extra oxygen, to your baby through a nasal cannula, which is placed in the nostrils. 

HHFNC are sometimes used as an alternative to CPAP or weaning (gradual withdrawal) from  CPAP. Unlike a CPAP hat, sticky pads are placed on your baby’s cheeks to help hold the tubing in place. This makes it easier when your baby is being moved, such as during skin-to-skin time or feeding  

Intravenous (IV) drip

Your baby may have fluids, nutrients and medication through a thin tube (cannula) into a vein. If your baby needs a drip for a long time, the team might insert a central line into blood vessels in their umbilical cord or a long line into their arm or leg. There is more information below on long lines.

Umbilical catheter

An umbilical catheter is a long, thin plastic tube that is inserted into one of the two arteries or the vein of your baby’s umbilical cord. An umbilical arterial line (UAC) can be used for taking blood samples and to continuously monitor a baby's blood pressure. An umbilical venous line (UVC) can be used initially to give your baby the fluids, nutrition and medications that they may need.

Feeding pump and tubes

Your baby may have nutrients or milk through a flexible tube. They may have one or more of these types:

  • nasogastric tube, which goes through your baby's nose into their stomach
  • orogastric tube, which goes through their mouth into their stomach.

Find out more about feeding your baby in hospital

Long lines

Long lines are used for babies who require IV nutrition or certain medications. It is a fine, plastic tube that is threaded into one of your baby’s small veins in the arm or leg until it reaches a point where the veins are much larger (usually just outside the heart). 

Oxygen saturation monitor

Oxygen saturation monitoring measures the amount of oxygen in your baby's blood. It helps the nurses and doctors know if your baby’s body is getting the oxygen it needs. The monitor is attached by a long, thin wire to a sensor that is wrapped around your baby’s wrist or foot, which may be held in place with a plaster.

Vital signs monitors

These check your baby's breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. They may also measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your baby’s blood. They sound an alarm if any measurements are too high or low. If this happens, a staff member will come and check that everything is okay. 


Phototherapy is used to treat newborn jaundice. This is a common condition caused by the build-up of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a substance produced when red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, are broken down. A newborn baby's liver is not fully developed, so it's less effective at removing the bilirubin from the blood. Jaundice needs to be treated to avoid more health complications. 

Jaundice can be treated with phototherapy, which is a special type of blue light (not sunlight). There are 2 main types of phototherapy:

  • conventional phototherapy – where your baby is laid under a halogen or fluorescent lamp with their eyes covered
  • fibreoptic phototherapy – where your baby lies on a blanket that incorporates fibreoptic cables and light travels through the fibreoptic cables and shines on to your baby's back.

Your baby’s temperature will be monitored during their treatment to make sure they aren’t getting too hot. They’ll also be checked for dehydration. The treatment can be stopped when the bilirubin level falls to a safe level. 

Phototherapy is generally very effective for newborn jaundice and has few side effects, although your baby may develop a temporary rash and diarrhoea.  

How you feel in the baby unit

Remember that as your baby’s parent, you are not classed as a visitor to the baby unit. You are partners in care alongside the healthcare professionals looking after your baby. 

Your healthcare team are there to support you to find ways to care for and bond with your baby while in the unit. Find out more about caring for your baby. 

It’s important to look after yourself as well as your baby. This will help you cope better physically and emotionally while you spend time in the baby unit. Find out more about practical tips for time spent on the baby unit

NHS. Special care: ill or premature babies. (Page last reviewed: 16 April 2021. Next review due: 16 April 2024.)

Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Health dictionary. 

Bamat N et al. (2019) Positive end‐expiratory pressure for preterm infants requiring conventional mechanical ventilation for respiratory distress syndrome or bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2019; Issue 2. Art. No.: CD004500. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004500.pub3.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. NHSGGC Paediatric Clinical Guidelines. Humidified High-flow nasal cannulae (HHFNC)

NHS University Hospital Southampton Foundation Trust. Long lines and central lines.

NHS. Newborn Jaundice. (Page last reviewed: 4 September 2018. Next review due: 4 September 2021)

Review dates
Reviewed: 23 August 2021
Next review: 23 August 2024