What is neonatal care?

A mum holding her baby while the baby is attached to some wires

This page contains information to help you understand what neonatal care is and why your baby might be in neonatal care.

Neonatal care is the type of care a baby born premature or sick receives in a neonatal unit.

Units are a part of hospitals which provide care for babies soon after they are born. The word ‘neonatal’ means newborn, or the first 28 days of life.

Over 90,000 babies are born premature or sick and in need of neonatal care in the UK each year.

We know that having a baby in neonatal care is likely to bring up a whole range of emotions, and some of these can be hard to face. It may be that you feel anxious about why your baby has been born prematurely or sick, or about the treatment they are receiving.

The neonatal team of healthcare professionals can give you more information about your baby’s condition and the needs they have.

It was a massive shock as I was at full term and had no complications in my pregnancy. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone. Reading stories on the Bliss website helped me feel less alone.

Jasmine, mum to Tobias

Why is my baby in neonatal care?

Babies are admitted into neonatal care for many different reasons. The main reasons for a baby to be admitted are:

  • they are born prematurely
  • they have a low birth weight
  • they are born with, or develop shortly after birth, a medical condition which needs treatment in hospital
  • they experience a difficult birth.

Sometimes, the cause of premature birth or a medical condition will not be known, and you will not know exactly why this has happened to you.

You can always talk about why this might have happened at postnatal check-ups, with your midwife, or with a member of the neonatal staff on the unit.

You are not alone

Take a look at our stories and features about babies born premature or sick, their families and the health professionals who care for them.
Read more
Mum reclining in a hospital chair with her baby wrapped in blanket and resting on her chest

What is a premature birth?

A baby who is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy will be called a premature baby. The neonatal team have different words for different levels of premature birth. They may also use the word ‘preterm’ to talk about your baby being born early.

There are different ways of describing a premature birth.

  • Term = A baby that has spent at least 37 weeks inside the womb (gestation)
  • Preterm = A baby born before 37 weeks’ gestation
  • Moderate to late preterm = A baby born between 32 and 37 weeks’ gestation
  • Very preterm = A baby born between 28 and 32 weeks’ gestation
  • Extremely preterm = A baby born at or before 28 weeks’ gestation

Want information about neonatal care for multiples? Visit Twins Trust's website.

What does low birth weight mean?

Babies who are born small may need to spend time in the neonatal unit. You might hear the staff use these words if your baby has a low birthweight.

There are different ways of describing a low birthweight.

  • Low birth weight = Born weighing less than 2500g (5lbs)
  • Very low birth weight = Born weighing less than 1500g (3lbs)
  • Extremely low birth weight = Born weighing less than 1000g (2lbs)


You need to register your baby's birth.

What if my baby was born with a medical condition?

Neonatal units treat a number of medical conditions.

This can include problems found before your baby was born. These might be conditions which are carried in your family (called genetic or inherited conditions) or where your baby has developed in an unusual or different way in the womb (called congenital conditions).

This can include problems found before your baby was born. Your baby may have a condition if they were born early, or if they were born at term. These might be conditions which are carried in your family (called ‘genetic’ or ‘inherited conditions’) or where your baby has developed in an unusual or different way in the womb (called ‘congenital conditions’).

The staff will give you information about your baby’s medical condition, but if you ever want to know more, you can ask them. They will be happy to talk to you about any questions you might have.

NHS Choices have useful pages with lots of conditions explained. You can search via nhs.uk

Difficult births

If your baby had a difficult birth that required some extra medical attention (for example using forceps), they may receive care in a neonatal unit. This could be to treat them for any injuries or just to keep an eye on them for a short time before they go home.

Separation after birth

Sometimes your baby may be separated from you shortly after they are born. This could be for a number of reasons but usually means they require special care somewhere outside of a maternity ward. The maternity care team will do everything they can to give you some time with your baby before they are moved, but this may not always be possible.

The information in this section is due for review November 2025