Equipment on the neonatal unit

Mum touching her baby through an incubator

We hear from parents that the equipment on the neonatal unit can seem overwhelming when you first arrive.

This section explains what equipment you might find and what they do.

You might not have had any time with your baby after they were born and before they went to the unit. Many parents tell us that their baby being in the incubator and attached to wires makes them feel distanced from them.

There can also be sounds from equipment which can seem alarming at first. This can feel very upsetting. Some parents find it helpful to know what the equipment does and how it helps to monitor and provide support for their baby.

If you are ever unsure about the equipment used for your baby, ask the neonatal team – they will be happy to explain.

Common equipment on the neonatal unit


Incubators are clear boxes which help keep your baby warm. Premature or sick babies can struggle to stay warm on their own.

Some incubators are closed boxes with hand holes on the side. This helps keep the heat and humidity in the incubator, stopping too much moisture evaporating from your baby’s fine skin.

Other incubators have open tops and an overhead heater or heated mattresses.

The temperature is controlled in two ways – either with controls or using an automatic sensor on your baby's skin. If the sensor falls off or is not working properly, an alarm sounds, and a nurse will check the temperature of the incubator.

Ventilators and breathing machines

Before your baby was born, they received all the oxygen they needed from mum. The oxygen in the mum's blood passes across the placenta and into the umbilical cord (the cord that connects the baby to the placenta and which is cut at birth).

Once they are born, babies get their oxygen by breathing. If a baby is born prematurely or with a medical condition, they may struggle to breathe by themselves. Premature babies' lungs in particular might not be developed enough to manage breathing by themselves yet.

Depending on what your baby needs, they might be put on a machine called a ventilator – this helps your baby to breathe.

There are two types of basic ventilator:

Positive pressure ventilators blow air with or without added oxygen (depending on what your baby needs) gently into your baby’s lungs through a tube which is passed through their nose or mouth. This inflates your baby’s lungs. How quickly the lungs are inflated is kept regular, and adjusted depending on what your baby needs.

High frequency oscillating ventilators blow small amounts of air with or without added oxygen (depending on what your baby needs) into the lungs very quickly, hundreds of times a minute. Your baby’s chest will look like it is vibrating. This might look worrying, but it can work very well for some kinds of lung conditions.

Other breathing machines can include:

Heated, humidified high-flow nasal cannula (also called HHHFNC, high-flow or optiflow)
Some babies need help with their breathing but do not need something as strong as a ventilator. Heated, humidified high-flow nasal cannula is where warm, moist air with or without oxygen (depending on what your baby needs) flows into your baby’s lungs through small tubes in their nose.

Continuous positive airway pressure (often shortened to CPAP) is similar to high-flow, and passes air with or without oxygen (depending on what your baby needs) through two thin tubes in your baby’s nose, or through a small mask over their nose. CPAP slightly raises the pressure of the air, which helps keep your baby’s lungs inflated.

Endotracheal (pronounced en-doe-track-eel) tube

This is put down your baby's windpipe (called a trachea by health professionals) if they are on a ventilator. It is either put in through your baby's nose or mouth. It is the tube which passes the air into your baby's lungs from the ventilator.

Vital signs monitor

These machines pick up electrical signals given out from your baby’s heart, and always check that it is beating properly. They can also pick up changes in your baby's breathing. These monitors pick up these signals through small pads put on your baby’s chest. Wires run from the pads to the monitoring machine.

Oxygen saturation monitor

These monitors check the amount of oxygen in your baby's blood, by shining a light through their skin. The sensors are strapped gently to your baby’s foot or hand.

Intravenous (pronounced in-tra-vee-nus, and sometimes shortened to IV) drip

Your baby might have thin tubes (sometimes called IVs, drips or cannulae) put into a tiny blood vessel. The IV is usually put in a hand, foot, arm or leg. Sometimes the staff might have to use one of the tiny veins on the surface of your baby’s head. These tubes are there to give fluids or medication, like antibiotics.

Feeding tube

If your baby can't feed by themselves yet, they might be able to have breast milk or formula through a tube that goes down their mouth or nose and into their stomach. Doctors might use a nasogastric (pronounced nase-oh-gas-trick) or orogastric (pronounced or-oh-gas-trick) tube.

As soon as you know what all the machinery does, and why they beep and alarm, you will feel more comfortable in this unfamiliar place. Ask questions - no one will judge you.

Annie, mum to Alfie

Other equipment you might find on the neonatal unit

Umbilical catheter

These long, soft tubes are put into the blood vessels in your baby’s belly button. Umbilical catheters are mostly used in the first few days after birth.

There are two types – one goes into an artery (blood vessels which carry blood full of oxygen from the heart and to the rest of the body) and is used to measure blood pressure and to take blood samples to check levels of certain important gases.

The other kind goes into a vein (smaller blood vessels which take blood with less oxygen back to the heart) and gives your baby nutrition or medicine. These catheters can have one or more tubes, allowing for different tests to be taken at the same time and avoiding disturbing your baby.

Long lines

These are very thin tubes passed into one of your baby’s larger veins. This is quite a complicated procedure and can mean an operation is needed to put the tube in. Long lines are often used for giving nutrition and certain medication.

Phototherapy lamp or light blanket

When red blood cells are broken down in the blood, products such as bilirubin are released. The liver usually removes this, but sometimes, it can’t do this properly.

Jaundice in newborns is where there is a higher level of bilirubin in your baby’s blood stream than there should be. Special lamps and blankets, which give out blue light, can be used to break down the bilirubin. Your baby’s eyes will be covered to protect them.

Phototherapy sometimes takes place in transitional care (with you giving the care at your bedside in the maternity ward) or in the special care baby unit (SCBU).

Want to see inside a neonatal unit?

Watch a series of five videos which will introduce you to life on a neonatal unit.
Read more
Mum and nurse with their hands through an incubator touching a baby

The information in this section is due for review May 2021