What Is an Incubator?

Learn How an Incubator Helps Certain Newborns Thrive

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An incubator is an enclosed apparatus that is used in hospitals to help premature or sick babies survive and thrive.

Premature Babies and Incubators

Premature newborns (also known as preemies) are small babies that are born before the mother has reached 37 weeks of gestation—in other words, they are babies who are born too early. They tend to have underdeveloped body parts that may include the lungs, digestive system, immune system, and skin, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

Since they needed more time in the womb, doctors and nurses in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) at hospitals often need to put premature babies inside incubators to control their environment for days, weeks, or even months until they can live on their own in a bassinet or crib.

What Incubators Do

An incubator is roughly a few feet long, a couple of feet wide, and a few feet high. It has dials and buttons on the bottom, and on the top, there is a clear dome made of hard plastic that opens. The baby goes inside the dome and lies on a warm surface. The incubator may be set to stay at a certain temperature at all times, or the temperature may vary, depending on the temperature of the baby. Premature infants lack body fat and sometimes can't keep themselves warm without help, so the incubator primarily helps them regulate temperature. But that's not its only function.

An incubator also protects premature babies, who are extra vulnerable and are at increased risk of complications, from infection, noise, and light, and it may even provide humidified air to help very premature babies maintain skin integrity.

In addition, it can limit the amount of dust and allergens that a baby is exposed to.

Like preemies, babies who are sick can also have difficulty regulating their own temperature and fighting off disease, so they may also be temporarily placed in incubators.

Incubators and Radiant Warmers

If and when medical professionals need regular access to your baby, the newborn may be transferred from an incubator to something called a radiant warmer, which is similar in that the surface of it is heated, but there is no dome over the baby—it opens to the air.

If Your Baby Is Placed in an Incubator

If you're a new mother whose baby has been put inside an incubator, it can be extremely difficult to deal with emotionally. You likely want nothing more than to snuggle with your adorable little baby, so when there's a plastic wall put between you and your bundle of joy, it's common to feel sad, angry, anxious, and frustrated. You may also worry about whether your little one will make it.

The good news is that an incubator usually has openings that are each a few inches wide on the sides, so a mother can reach inside and stroke her baby (with a freshly cleaned hand, of course). This skin-to-skin contact is bound to make you feel better, and it's sure to comfort your newborn, too. Plus, KidsHealth.org reports that more than 90% of preemies who weigh 800 grams or more (a little under two pounds) survive, and ones who weigh more than 500 grams (a little more than 1 pound) have more than a 60% chance of survival. So, though parenting a preemie may require extra special care and patience, the odds are good that your little one will eventually thrive.

More About NICU Care

Sources:

"Care for the Premature Baby." American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2015).

"About Preemies." Kids Health (2014).

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