What Is a Baby Incubator

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on April 19, 2023
4 min read

If your baby has to go to the Neonatal Internal Care Unit (NICU), you will see lots of high-tech equipment. Some of it can seem intimidating and scary. However, all of it is there to help healthcare providers take care of your baby and give them the best start in life. One of the most important pieces of equipment in the NICU is a baby incubator. This is a bed for your baby that helps regulate their temperature and provides the ideal environment they need to grow and thrive.

There are a lot of different reasons your baby may need to be in a baby incubator. Some of these include:

Premature birth. This is the most common reason a baby needs a baby incubator. Babies who are born too early, before 37 weeks, can have problems such as low birth weight, irregular temperature, and unstable vital signs. A baby incubator helps control their temperature. They will also be given high-calorie formula and will get the treatment they need for any other issues.

Traumatic birth. Babies who have a difficult birth may not get enough oxygen or might have reduced blood flow. Doctors can treat this with whole-body cooling. This is a treatment that can help prevent brain injury that might happen when a baby has decreased blood flow.

Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). This is a breathing problem caused by immature lungs. Mild RDS can be treated by using a machine that pushes air through the nose. This helps to keep the lungs inflated. Babies with severe RDS may need a breathing tube or a ventilator.

Hypoglycemia. This is low blood sugar. It sometimes happens when babies are premature, have an infection, or are born to women with gestational diabetes.

Sepsis or other infection. Premature babies are at higher risk for infections. They may need antibiotics as well as other treatments.

Maternal chorioamnionitis. This condition happens when there are bacteria in the membranes that surround the baby, the amniotic fluid, or the umbilical cord. This can cause infections in the mother and baby. The baby may need to be treated with antibiotics.

Baby incubators provide the ideal environment for your baby to thrive. Newborns, particularly those born prematurely, can have trouble regulating their body temperature. This, and the fact that they don't have much fat, makes them prone to hypothermia. Hypothermia is when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. This can cause complications like low tissue oxygen, breathing difficulty, and slowed growth.

Incubators prevent hypothermia by helping your baby maintain an optimal temperature. Temperature controls on a baby incubator can be set manually or automatically based on your baby's temperature. Baby incubators also act as humidifiers. This helps keep your baby from having skin problems.

Another feature of baby incubators is that they help block out noise. The NICU can be a busy and loud place. Incubators protect babies from noises and direct light that can disturb them and cause sleep interruptions, increases in blood pressure, and unnecessary stress.

There are several different types of baby incubators, and your baby may be in different types at different times depending on their needs. These include:

  • Open-box incubator. This provides heat underneath the baby but is otherwise open.
  • Closed-box incubator. This type has a fresh-air filtration system that prevents the loss of moisture from the air and helps prevent infections.
  • Double-wall incubator. This type has a double wall system for even more protection from heat and moisture loss.
  • Servo-control incubator. This incubator can be programmed to adjust the temperature and humidity level based on sensors that are attached to the baby.
  • Transport incubators. These are used to move babies from one place to another, such as from one part of the hospital to another or a different hospital altogether.

It can feel like there's nothing you can do to take care of your baby if they are in an incubator in the NICU, but that's not true. Talk to your baby's doctors and nurses to find out when and how you can hold them. If your baby can't breastfeed yet, you can pump milk for them. Spend as much time with your baby as you can.

Ask about your baby's schedule and let the nurses know you are ready to help care for them. The nurses will be happy to let you do as much as possible to learn to take care of them. You may be able to do diaper changes, take your baby's temperature, or bathe them. If you would like to, ask if you can be there when your baby is having a procedure done.