Your Baby in the NICU: Understanding Infection

All babies are at risk for infection. This is because a baby’s immune system (the body’s defense against disease) needs time to develop. While it’s developing, your baby is more likely to get sick from germs than older children and adults are. A preemie’s immune system is less mature than a term baby’s. This puts preemies at higher risk of developing an infection. Certain health problems also raise your baby’s risk for infection.

Types of infection

Infection occurs when germs enter the body. These are the most common types of infections in a newborn:

  • Localized infection (infection of one area of the body)

  • Systemic infection (infection that spreads to the organs of the body through the bloodstream)

  • Meningitis (infection of the fluid surrounding the brain or spinal cord)

How did my baby get an infection?

There are many ways a newborn could get an infection:

  • Before birth, amniotic membranes can rupture (break open). This allows germs to travel up the mother’s vagina and into the uterus, infecting the baby.

  • Before birth, germs can pass through the placenta from the mother to the baby.

  • During birth, germs may pass from the mother to the baby.

  • After birth, germs from the environment can enter the baby’s body. This may be more likely to happen if there’s a break in the baby’s skin. Or during a procedure in which a tube is inserted into the body.

How is infection treated?

A healthcare provider gives an antibiotic medicine through an IV (intravenous line) to treat infection. If your baby doesn’t have an infection but is at increased risk for one, a healthcare provider may give your baby antibiotics as a precaution. The length of time your baby will need medicine varies. This depends on the type of infection they have. The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) staff will tell you more about the medicine and any possible side effects. The healthcare team will take special precautions to keep germs from spreading to other babies in the NICU during treatment.

What are the long-term effects?

How your baby does depends on many factors. These include where the infection is, how bad it is, and what type of germ caused it. Talk to your baby's healthcare provider about how long it will take for your baby to recover and any follow-up that may be needed.

Your role as a parent

Your role as parent is to bond with and support your baby. The NICU staff will watch your baby for the following signs of infection. Alert your baby's healthcare provider right away if you notice any of these signs:

  • Less activity

  • Increased breathing problems or apnea (stopping breathing)

  • Redness or discharge around the bellybutton or anywhere else

Help prevent infection with handwashing

Man washing hands in hospital room.
Wash hands often to help prevent infection.

Most germs are spread on hands. Handwashing is the best way to prevent germs from spreading. Use the following steps. (Healthcare providers may ask you to follow a different procedure while your baby is in the NICU.)

  • Remove any rings, bracelets, or watches you’re wearing. It can be hard to clean under these. (You may want to stop wearing jewelry to the NICU.)

  • Use clean, running water and plenty of soap to work up a good lather.

  • Clean your whole hand. This includes under your nails, between your fingers, and up your wrists. Don’t just wipe. Rub well.

  • Keep washing for at least 10 to 15 seconds. You may be surprised how long this takes. So, be sure to count.

  • Rinse. Let the water run down your fingertips, not up your wrists.


If you have a preemie in the NICU, the staff may ask you to follow additional precautions. This is to help keep infection from spreading to your baby. The NICU staff will tell you more.

Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2022
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