Babies needing specialized care are often sent to a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), also known as a special care nursery, an intensive care nursery or newborn intensive care. In the NICU, babies receive close monitoring and treatment, as well as a customized health plan aimed at restoring their well-being. Why do babies need this sort of specialized treatment? What causes them to need to be placed in the NICU? Below are some of the most common factors at work:

Reason #1: Premature Delivery: One of the most common reasons a baby has to go to the NICU is premature delivery. Premature babies are usually more fragile and susceptible to health issues — which is why, any time a child is born at less than 37 weeks, or especially if he or she is born much less than 34 weeks, the baby usually ends up going to the NICU.

What causes premature delivery? If premature babies are more likely to experience health concerns, it only makes sense to ask why they’re being born so early. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Incompetent Cervix: Mothers who have had a history of premature babies are more likely to have premature babies again due to what’s called cervical insufficiency. For this reason, doctors should take precautionary measures (such as a prophylactic stitch, serial sonograms, etc.) for at-risk mothers — and if they don’t, it is a cause for concern.
  2. Mother’s Medical Conditions: A mother with severe anemia, uncontrolled diabetes or uncontrolled hypertension may be predisposed to premature delivery. Likewise, in some of these cases, she could get sick enough to compromise the baby, leading doctors to intervene and deliver the baby early.
  3. Infections: Caused by natural bacteria that have moved to parts of the body where they shouldn’t be (like the womb), infections can lead to premature birth. Whether an intrauterine infection, a genital tract infection or a urinary tract infection, these health concerns don’t always have obvious symptoms right away — but once they have progressed to a certain point, they may make it such that a baby must be delivered to stay well.

Reason #2: High Blood Sugar: Mothers share their blood supplies with their babies, so a mother with high blood sugar will pass that same sugar on to the baby. The baby’s pancreas revs up to handle the sugar, but, once born and no longer connected to the mother’s sugar supply, the baby may experience hypoglycemic shock. This problem is serious enough to place the baby in the NICU, too.  

Reason #3: Birth Injuries: Problems in the midst of delivery can lead to various complications and injuries for the baby. Particularly large babies are especially susceptible to traumatic deliveries, for example, which could cause shoulder dystocia, also known as Erb’s Palsy. This is where the nerves in the neck are stretched inappropriately in a way that causes weakness and paralysis of the arms. However, it must be noted that most shoulder dystocia cases occur with “average size” babies!

In most cases, when a baby is sent to the NICU, it is due to one of the causes listed above, which may relate to the mother’s health, a blood sugar problem or injuries sustained during delivery.

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