NICU Lingo

Here are some words and phrases you may hear around the NICU from doctors, nurses or even other parents. Remember that this is not a comprehensive list, and whether the words you have heard regarding your child are on this list or not, it is always a good idea to do some more research by asking your child’s doctor or others who have experience with it. (online information can often be terrifying and in some cases completely untrue.) A great place to find people who have dealt with the condition you are dealing with is our forum page.

A’s and B’s:

Periods of apnea and bradycardia (slower breathing and slower heart rate)


A condition in which the red blood cells in the blood, measured by hematocrit (the ratio of the volume of red blood cells to the total volume of blood), are lower than normal. Red blood cells carry oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the tissue.


A prolonged pause in breathing that lasts more than twenty seconds. This is a common problem in premature infants and requires monitoring and sometimes medication.


Inhaling a foreign substance into the lungs, such as milk or amniotic fluid.


To pump air into the baby’s lungs using oxygen and a rubber bag. This method is used temporarily to help a baby who needs help breathing.

Blow by:

To give a baby a small amount of oxygen through a tube pointed towards the nose.


A yellow-pigmented waste product that forms when the body naturally eliminates old red blood cells. A high level may make the skin and eyes look yellow. In premature infants, they are often put under fluorescent light or on a bili blanket to help the levels come down.

Blood gas:

A blood test used to evaluate an infant’s level of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and acid. This helps to evaluate an infant’s respiratory status.

Bradycardia (Brady):

A slowing of the baby’s heart rate.

Chem strip (blood sugar or dex stick):

Testing of the baby’s blood sugar level.

Chronological Age:

A baby’s age based on their actual birthday.

Corrected Age:

A baby’s age based on their actual due date. (Also adjusted age)


Blueness of the skin as a result of decreased oxygen levels.

Desatting or desaturation:

A drop of oxygen levels in the baby’s bloodstream.

Endotracheal tube (ET tube):

A tube that passes through either the baby’s mouth or nose into the windpipe (trachea) to allow oxygen into the lungs.

Gavage feedings (tube feedings or NG – nasal gastric tube):

Providing nutrition through a plastic tube passed through the baby’s mouth or nose and into the stomach.

Head Ultrasound (HUS):

A painless test that uses sound waves to look at a baby’s brain. This test can be done at the bedside in the NICU.

Heel stick:

To obtain a blood sample by pricking the baby’s heel.

High-Frequency Oscillatory Ventilator:

A special ventilator capable of breathing for a baby at rates exceeding those of a normal ventilator.


Low blood pressure.

Intravenous (IV) therapy:

Nutrition or medication given through a catheter that is inserted into a vein.


Inserting a tube into the trachea (windpipe) through the nose or mouth to allow air to reach the lungs.

I’s and O’s:

The amount of fluid, (IV and feeds) baby takes in compared to how much the baby excretes (Ins and Outs).

Isolette or incubator:

A type of enclosed bed for an infant who is not mature or well enough to maintain her body temperature in an open crib.


A yellow skin color that develops in most premature babies and in some full-term babies.

Kangaroo care:

Skin-to-skin care where the baby is placed on the bare chest of the mother or father.


Monitor wires attached to baby’s skin.


A dark green sticky substance found in the baby’s intestines. It’s the first bowel movement after birth.


A machine that displays the heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and blood oxygen saturation of the baby.

Nasal cannula:

Small prongs placed in the baby’s nose that delivers oxygen.


Light therapy to treat jaundice. Bright blue fluorescent lights, called bililights, are placed over the baby’s incubator or the baby may be placed on a blanket that will shine the light up towards the baby.

PKU- Metabolic Screen/ newborn screening:

A blood test done on special paper that tests for several different genetic disorders. It is often done 24-72 hours after birth and repeated on preemie babies at 2 weeks and 4 weeks of age.
Pulse oximeter, or pulse ox: A machine that measures how well the blood is being oxygenated, often found on the feet or wrists.

Priming the gut:

Used to describe the slow starting of feeds to get the digestive system ready to start functioning fully (also called trophic feeds).


A backward flow of stomach contents, generally referring to a type of spitting up or regurgitation common in premature infants.

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS):

Lung disease that is caused by lack of surfactant (lubricant in the lungs) and is a common cause of breathing difficulty in premature babies.


The contents left inside the stomach at the start of a next feeding.


A potentially fatal and dangerous condition in which the body is fighting a severe infection that has spread via the bloodstream.

Spinal tap/lumbar puncture (LP):

A procedure in which a needle is inserted into the lower spine to obtain spinal fluid.


The process of removing secretions from the baby’s nose, mouth or lungs by using either a bulb syringe or suction catheter.


A fast heart rate.

Ventilator (Vent):

A machine that helps an infant breathe by pumping oxygen into a tube (called an ET tube) that goes into the lungs.

TPN or total parenteral nutrition:

A type of IV fluid that provides total nutrition to someone who cannot take any nourishment by mouth. TPN is nutrition outside of the digestive system. TPN contains sugars, electrolytes, vitamins, proteins, and can supply all of the nutrients that the body needs.


A fast breathing rate.


Also known as a Radiant Warmer, an open bed allows maximum access to a sick or newly born infant. Radiant heaters above the bed keep the baby warm.


To take away gradually. In the NICU, it is often used to describe the process of removing an infant from a ventilator or incubator.

Learning your A, B, D’s (apnea, bradycardia, desats) will help you better understand your baby’s journey through the NICU. You will soon, not only be accustomed to the lingo, but you too will be speaking this newfound language with ease.