You’ve been waiting so long to meet your new arrival that when something happens to keep you apart it can be devastating. No new parent wants to be separated from their baby.

If you have a premature or sick baby that needs a little extra TLC, you may quickly learn more about your local hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) than you ever anticipated — including the incubators.

You have a lot of questions about incubators. We get it! From incubators’ uses to their various functions we’ve got you covered with the information you need to understand this important piece of medical equipment.

However, we hope you won’t be scared to ask the hospital medical staff anything on your mind. They’re there for you, too.

Incubators are a fixture in NICUs. They are used in combination with other equipment and procedures to ensure that babies needing extra support have the best possible environment and continual monitoring.

It may help to think of them as a second womb designed to protect a baby and provide the optimal conditions for their development.

There are many reasons why a baby may need to be inside an incubator. These can include:

Premature birth

Babies born prematurely may need additional time to develop their lungs and other vital organs. (Their eyes and ear drums may be so sensitive that normal light and sound would cause permanent damage to these organs.)

Also, babies born extremely early will not have had the time to develop fat just under the skin and will need help to keep themselves warm and toasty.

Breathing issues

Sometimes babies will have fluid or meconium in their lungs. This can lead to infections and an inability to breathe well. Newborns may also have immature, not fully developed lungs that require monitoring and extra oxygen.


Incubators can reduce the chance of germs and additional infection while a little one heals from an illness. Incubators also offer a protected space where it’s possible to monitor vitals 24/7 when your baby also needs multiple IVs for medication, fluids, etc.

Effects of gestational diabetes

Many doctors will briefly incubate a baby if the mother had gestational diabetes, so that the baby can be kept nice and warm while they take time to monitor their blood sugars.


Some incubators include special lights to help reduce jaundice, a yellowing of a baby’s skin and eyes. Newborn jaundice is common and can occur when babies have a high level of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during normal breakdown of red blood cells.

Long or traumatic delivery

If a newborn baby has experienced trauma, they may require constant monitoring and additional medical supports. The incubator can also offer a safe womb-like environment where a baby can recover from the trauma.

Low birth weight

Even if a baby is not premature, if they are extremely small, they may not be able to stay warm without the additional help an incubator offers.

Additionally, very small babies may struggle with many of the same vital functions premature babies do (i.e. breathing, and eating), benefiting from the extra oxygen and controlled environment an incubator offers.

Recovering from surgery

If a baby needs to have surgery for a complication following their birth, they’ll need to be monitored and in a controlled, safe environment afterwards. An incubator is perfect for this.

It can be easy to think of an incubator as just a bed for a sick baby, but it’s so much more than a place for sleeping.

An incubator is designed to provide a safe, controlled space for infants to live while their vital organs develop.

Unlike a simple bassinet, an incubator provides an environment that can be adjusted to provide the ideal temperature as well as the perfect amount of oxygen, humidity, and light.

Without this specifically controlled environment, many infants could not survive, particularly those born a few months early.

In addition to climate control, an incubator offers protection from allergens, germs, excessive noises, and light levels that might cause harm. An incubator’s ability to control humidity also allows it to protect a baby’s skin from losing too much water and becoming brittle or cracking.

An incubator can include equipment to track a range of things including a baby’s temperature and heart rate. This monitoring allows nurses and doctors to constantly track a baby’s health status.

Beyond just offering information about a baby’s vitals, an incubator will also either be open on top or have portal holes on the sides that allow it to be used in combination with various medical procedures and interventions.

Incubators can be used in combination with medical procedures like:

  • feeding through an IV
  • delivering blood or medications through an IV
  • constantly monitoring vital functions
  • ventilating
  • special lights for jaundice treatments

This means that not only does an incubator protect a baby, but it provides an ideal environment for medical professionals to monitor and treat an infant.

You may come across many different types of incubators. Three common incubator types are: the open incubator, the closed incubator, and the transport incubator. Each is designed slightly differently with different advantages and limitations.

Open incubator

This is also sometimes called a radiant warmer. In an open incubator, a baby is placed on a flat surface with a radiant heat element either positioned above or offering heat from below.

The heat output is automatically controlled by the temperature of the baby’s skin. While you may see lots of monitors, the incubator is open above the baby.

Because of this open air space, open incubators do not provide the same amount of control over humidity as closed incubators. However, they can still monitor a baby’s vital functions and warm them.

It is easier to achieve skin-to-skin with a baby in an open incubator, since it’s possible to directly touch the baby from above.

Open incubators work well for infants who primarily need to be temporarily warmed and have their vital statistics measured. The inability to control the humidity and guard from airborne germs means that open incubators are not ideal for babies requiring a more controlled environment and germ protection.

Closed incubator

A closed incubator is one where the baby is completely surrounded. It will have portal holes on the sides to allow IVs and human hands inside, but is designed to keep germs, light, and other elements out. A closed incubator is like living in a climate controlled bubble!

One of the biggest differences between a closed incubator and an open one is the way that heat is circulated and the temperature controlled. A closed incubator allows warm air to be blown through a canopy that surrounds the baby.

The temperature and humidity can either be manually controlled using knobs on the outside of the incubator or adjusted automatically based off skin sensors attached to the baby. (Incubators that automatically adjust like this are called servo-control incubators.)

Closed incubators are truly their own microenvironments. This means that they are ideal for babies who need extra germ protection, reduced light/sounds, and humidity control.

Some closed incubators have two walls to help prevent heat and air loss. These are commonly called double-walled incubators.

Transport or portable incubator

As the name implies, these types of incubators are typically used to transport a baby between two different locations.

One might be used when a baby is transported to a different hospital to get services not offered at their current location or access to doctors who specialize in areas they need additional care.

A transport incubator typically includes a mini ventilator, a cardio-respiratory monitor, an IV pump, a pulse oximeter, and an oxygen supply built in.

Because transport incubators are typically smaller, they fit well in spaces that regular open and closed incubators might not.

While incubators can seem scary, they are important medical equipment that provide controlled environments for premature and ill babies. Without incubators fewer babies would be able to survive tough beginnings!

Incubators really are like a second womb or a safe bubble surrounding a baby. Although it can produce some anxiety to be surrounded by incubators in the NICU visiting your baby, comfort may come in knowing the hum of the electrical equipment means your baby is getting the oxygen and heat they need.

Additionally, while you may worry about the emotional impact of your baby being separated from you, take heart. A study from 2008 looking at the long-term effects of incubator care found the risk of depression was 2 to 3 times lower for 21-year-olds who had been in incubators at birth.

While an incubator may not be a mother’s arms, it can help provide safety, warmth, and important data.

Ask your nurse to help you understand your baby’s current home, and if at all possible, visit your baby in the NICU to talk to them and touch or feed them as allowed. This will encourage their development and allow you to continue bonding with them.