Transport to specialized neonatal facilities

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Learn about the methods of transportation necessary to accommodate premature birth, which is often an emergency event.

Key points

  • If a premature baby needs specialized care that is not available at their local hospital, they will need to be transferred by ambulance or by air to a more specialized hospital.
  • Emergency transportation vehicles are equipped with life support equipment and staff needed to care for the premature baby.

Depending on how premature a child is at birth and whether there are other complications, it may be necessary for the baby to be transported to a specialized facility called a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Babies in travel isolette

Depending on how premature a child is at birth and whether there are other complications, it may be necessary for the baby to be transported to a specialized facility called a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

NICUs are designed and equipped to support premature babies and full-term newborns with other types of conditions. There are also several different grades of NICU. Most hospitals will have a Level I NICU, which are for the less serious cases. Levels II and III are for babies requiring more support at birth. Not every hospital and community has a Level II or III NICU, so transport will be arranged. Usually the baby is transported in an ambulance, though sometimes a helicopter or other aircraft will be used.

Sometimes it is known that the pregnancy is high risk and transport of the still-pregnant mother to a hospital with an NICU may be arranged. More frequently, since the birth was not expected nor recognised as high risk, transportation is arranged for the baby very quickly after the birth.

Neonatal transport, whether by land or air, is a highly specialized ambulance service specifically designed with the newborn baby in mind. While premature babies may be more fragile, at least initially, than most babies, the concept of transporting them to an NICU is sound. It is much better to move babies to be taken care of by experts in a specialized facility than not. As a result, many more babies are saved and fewer suffer additional complications than in the past.

How neonatal transport works

Generally speaking, NICUs are located in major centres such as cities and bigger towns. A newborn baby requiring support, premature or not, will be sent to such a facility. For those already near an NICU, transport will be by ambulance. For those farther away, transport may be by ambulance or by helicopter or other aircraft.

Regardless of the mode of transportation, each vehicle is specially equipped with the types of life support equipment and staff typically needed by premature babies. In a way, when the ambulance shows up, for the baby, it is almost like being in the NICU already. The staff, which will likely include a doctor or a specially trained nurse and a respiratory therapist, will make sure the baby is stabilized and prepare them for transport. Depending on the condition of the baby, this may mean putting them on some form of ventilation and placing them in a mobile isolette. Any other treatment or precaution that is deemed necessary will also be done. The baby will then be transported along with the trained staff to a hospital that has an NICU.

The parents

Depending on the mode and size of the transport vehicle, the number of staff present to take care of the baby during transport, and the condition of the mother, it may not be possible for either the mother or the father or both to accompany their newborn baby in the same vehicle.

Many parents find this experience trying. Birth, even under the most ideal circumstances, is an intensely emotional experience. An unanticipated premature birth quickly followed by separation of the baby from the parent is often a very difficult experience. Depending on other factors, such as the condition of the mother, the ease in which other family affairs, such as taking care of older children, can be settled, and the distance between where the birth took place and the NICU, it may take some time before the family is reunited in the NICU.

The first thing to remember is that the entire system of transporting newborn babies is designed to ensure their health. The fact that one or both parents may not be able to travel with their newborn baby to the NICU will always have to do with space. Ambulances, whether on the road or in the air, can only hold a limited number of individuals. The seat that a parent does not take will be occupied with a medical professional specifically trained to take care of babies at risk. Staff at the hospital will be able to help parents reunite with their newborn baby at the earliest possible moment.

Taking care of business

While it is understandable that parents of a premature baby will want to be with that baby, it is not always easy for parents to just drop everything and travel to a city hospital not knowing how long they may have to stay. Most people have jobs, need an income, have other commitments to other family members and so on. Even if arrangements had been made for the impending birth of the child, a premature birth will change much of these plans.

More information on what life is like in an NICU

Last updated: October 31st 2009