Intravenous lines and catheters

Find out why and when intravenous lines and catheters may need to be used for your baby when they are in neonatal care.

Premature babies have only a small amount of blood and often have fragile skin. Most babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) require medicine, fluid, or nutrition to be given directly into the blood to help them grow. The team caring for your baby may need to insert a thin tube (an intravenous line) or catheter into a vein or artery in your baby’s arm, leg, umbilical cord or head.

Intravenous (IV) lines (long lines)

If your baby is very premature or too unwell to take food or fluids through his or her mouth, then very fine tubes, known as long lines, may be fed into a vein to let staff give your baby the nutrition he or she needs to thrive. This is called total parenteral nutrition (TPN). The line can also be used for injecting medication, such as antibiotics, should this be needed.

Doctors may also place a larger tube into an artery, to allow them to take blood samples. This artery may be in your baby’s arm, leg or umbilical cord.

Intravenous (IV) drips

Most babies on a neonatal unit have fine tubes (called drips or cannulae) inserted into a tiny blood vessel, usually in a hand, foot, arm or leg. These are usually either to provide fluid or as a route for giving important medication, such as antibiotics. 

Very occasionally, these can break the delicate blood vessels or become blocked. If so, fluids can leak into the surrounding tissues causing swelling. On rare occasions this may damage the skin, leaving a scar.

Umbilical catheters

There are two types of umbilical catheters. One is called an umbilical artery catheter, which is inserted into the baby’s artery. The other is called an umbilical venous catheter, which goes into the vein.

Catheters are long, soft tubes of different sizes that are inserted into the blood vessels in the belly button. Most catheters only have one tube through which fluid can be given. Some umbilical catheters have a second or third tube attached so that fluids and medications can be given through one entry point. 

This can allow your baby to have several procedures taking place without disturbing him or her or causing too much distress.

Catheters are mostly used in the first days after birth. The line in the artery is mostly used for measuring blood pressure and sampling blood gases. The line in the vein is used for giving nutrition and medicines.

Endotracheal tubes

Babies who are ventilated will have an endotracheal tube placed in the windpipe. This will ensure that air is able to reach your baby’s lungs. If the tube becomes dislodged due to movement from the baby or because the tape securing it becomes loose, it will quickly become obvious - alarms will sound and staff will reinsert the tube.

Feeding tubes

Very early babies often can’t feed normally, for a variety of reasons. Most babies will therefore be fed through special feeding tubes, especially during the first few weeks on the unit. These tubes enter through either the nose or the mouth and run directly to the stomach. Usually your baby can be fed your expressed milk, for more information click here