Intensive care for babies: How is NICU different from PICU?

NICU and PICU are intensive care for babies, especially infants. But how do they diffrent from each other.
Dr Shivhar Sonawane Published: 29 Mar 2023, 10:30 am IST
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While no one would ever want their newborn child to have the need for any type of intensive care ever, things don’t always go according to our wishes. At times, it becomes necessary for newborns to need intensive care. The places where babies can get the best care are either Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) or Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). Both the units have similar names because of what they have in common, but they still have different meanings. Let’s dive into each of these two units step-wise to determine what makes them different from each other.

Why do babies go to NICU and PICU?

While being different, both NICUs and PICUs are meant for children who require the highest level of medical care. Both units are designed for top-notch monitoring and feature special devices that would not be found in other areas of the hospital (like ventilators, monitors, and other special equipment). The staff is specially trained to give their young patients interventions and medications requiring close medical supervision. Plus, both places would have a lower staff-to-patient ratio to accommodate the intense needs of the patients. So, how do we differentiate between the two in simple terms? Let us explain this.

NICU is different from PICU. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Difference between NICU and PICU

NICU: To put it simply, NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit, is for just-born babies to 1 month of age, who need round-the-clock monitoring including premature babies, those with health issues, serious infections after birth, congenital heart diseases, and other neonatal surgical conditions requiring intensive monitoring after surgery, others weighing very less at birth (low birth weight: 1.5 to 2.0 kg, very low birth weight: 1 to 1.5 kg, extremely low birth weight: less than 1.0 kg), small for age baby and those who have had a difficult birth like breathing difficulties, feeding issues and all. The NICU is equipped with a medical team specialized in newborn care. Babies in need of neonatal care generally go to the unit in the first few hours or days of life.

Also read: Your mental health needs care if your baby is in NICU

PICU: Pediatric intensive care unit on the other hand is designed for older kids ranging from a few weeks old (> 4 weeks old) and higher up, till 14 to 18 yrs depending on hospital policy. The upper age limit can, however, be a bit unclear, especially if a patient has a long-standing or chronic illness. For example, your child has undergone treatment for cystic fibrosis in the past and might continue to receive care there into their 20s. Besides, your child may need PICU care for serious illnesses, like dengue, gastro, pneumonia with breathing complications, diabetes-related complications, serious accidents like a head injury, or any other scenario that requires frequent monitoring.

Premature babies will need intensive care. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock

So, if a baby is born prematurely and needs special care, it will be admitted to a NICU and not PICU. Since not all hospitals have specialized neonatal units, in such cases, your baby would be shifted to a nearby hospital with a dedicated NICU and then go to the PICU as a newborn.

Simply put, the main difference between the two is the age of a child – while the NICU is reserved for newborns till 1 month of age, the PICU is meant for kids of all ages. Though the two may also have slightly different equipment with the PICU needing devices to accommodate kids of many sizes, however, the level of care and monitoring is nowhere different with both giving the best available care to every single child in all circumstances.

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About the Author

Dr Shivhar Sonawane, Consultant – Paediatrician, Jupiter Hospital, Pune ...Read More

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