No one wants their baby or child to need any type of intensive care, that goes without saying. But, sometimes it’s inevitable, and the places where they can get the best care are either the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) or Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). Many hospitals have both a NICU and a PICU. Here, with the help Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and founder of Happiest Baby (you may have read one of his books) we’ll break down the differences between the NICU and the PICU.
What's the difference between the PICU and the NICU?
The PICU and the NICU have similar names because they share many similar qualities.
“Both NICUs and PICUs are intensive care units for children who require the highest level of medical care. Both units are designed to carry out top-notch monitoring,” Karp tells Romper. “They feature special devices that would not be found in other areas of the hospital (like ventilators) and their staffs are equipped to give their young patients interventions and medications that require close medical supervision.” In both places, the staff-to-patient is likely to be lower to accommodate the intense needs of the patients.
So, what’s the difference between them? The NICU is for brand-new babies who “need around-the-clock care, including little ones who are born early, those weighing under 5.5 pounds, those who have health issues, and babies who’ve gone through a difficult birth. The NICU is staffed with a medical team who specialize in newborn care. NICU babies generally go to the unit in the first hours or days of life.” If you are someone you know had a preemie, they likely spent at least some time in the NICU.
Meanwhile, the PICU is for older kids — from a few weeks old and up. The upper age limit can sometimes be a bit unclear, Karp says, especially if a patient has a chronic illness. “For example, if your kiddo has been treated for cystic fibrosis in the PICU in the past, they might continue their care there into their 20s.”
Other reasons your child may go to the PICU include serious illness, breathing complications from asthma or complications from diabetes, serious accidents or illnesses, or any other scenario where frequent monitoring is required.
In what situation would a newborn be admitted to the PICU?
If a baby is born prematurely and needs additional care, they will go to a NICU, not a PICU, even if the hospital only has the latter. Not all hospitals have NICUs, but it is far more likely that your baby would be transferred to a nearby hospital with a NICU bed than go to the PICU as a newborn.
However, babies who are readmitted to the hospital (meaning they go home and need to return for any reason) are likely to go to the PICU, Karp explains. “NICUs are very worried about introducing germs from the outside world into the very vulnerable population of sick and premature infants in the NICU.
Simply put, the main difference between the NICU and the PICU is simply age. The NICU is reserved for brand new babies, whereas the PICU is for kids of all ages. The two may also have slightly different equipment (again the PICU will need device to accommodate kids of many sizes) as well, however the level of care and the monitoring is similar in both.