What is neonatal care?

Premature baby attached to a tube with their mother's hand on them

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 who are born prematurely (before 37 weeks’ gestation), with a medical condition which needs treatment, or at a low birthweight.

The word ‘neonatal’ means newborn, or the first 28 days of life.

Over 90,000 babies are born premature or sick and needing neonatal care in the UK each year. That is one in seven babies, or around 250 babies every day.

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

I found not holding my twin boys very difficult. I found it helpful to tell myself that I was their mum. Whilst medical care was vital, no one knew or loved my babies like I did.

Deborah, mum to Nathaniel and Alexander

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 have a specific medical condition which needs treatment in hospital

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.

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

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. Find out more about how you can do this

How are medical conditions treated in the neonatal unit?

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).

Your baby may have a condition because they were born early, or if they were born at term. 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

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