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Choosing a NICU

A neonatal nurse cares for a newborn in Washington DC's level 4 Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children's National.

Most babies are born healthy. But occasionally, some newborns are premature or have health problems, and they need care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). While no one wants to think about their baby needing NICU care, it’s good to know that if you need one, you can choose the NICU that’s right for you.

Not all neonatal care facilities are the same, and it’s important to explore your local NICU options ahead of time. 

Top Level Care for Babies at Children's National

All NICUs care for babies who need special help, but different NICUs offer different levels of care:

  • Level I NICUs are sometimes referred to as “well baby nurseries.” They provide care for healthy, full-term babies and also stabilize babies born near term to get them ready to be moved to facilities that provide special care.
  • Level II NICUs offer nursery care for babies born at or after 32 weeks and babies who are recovering from more serious health problems. Level IIA facilities do not provide respiratory support for babies with breathing problems, while level IIB nurseries provide assisted ventilation for less than 24 hours, as well as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).
  • Level III NICUs care for very sick babies and offer access to a wide range of pediatric specialists and equipment, such as X-rays and ventilation support. The babies in these nurseries are generally born earlier than 32 weeks or have critical illnesses.
  • Level IV NICUs like Children’s National provide the highest level of neonatal care. These nurseries have clinical teams who can take care of babies who need special surgery for birth defects and other disorders. Level IV NICUs also have a full range of healthcare providers, including pediatric subspecialists, specialized nurses and equipment to care for very sick babies.

View frequently asked questions about NICUs (PDF)

Learn More About NICUs