If your baby is in the NICU, you know that there are a lot of people caring for her and helping her to get stronger each day. One of those NICU team members may be a respiratory therapist. A respiratory therapist (or RT) cares for babies with breathing problems.
When your baby first arrives in the NICU, a respiratory therapist evaluates her breathing. The RT looks to see if your baby is breathing too fast, if the breaths are shallow, or if she’s struggling to breathe. Then, together with the rest of the NICU team, the RT develops a treatment plan to help care for your baby.
Here are some common conditions that a respiratory therapist may see in the NICU:
Breathing problems: Premature babies often have breathing problems because their lungs are not fully developed. Full-term babies also can develop breathing problems due to complications of labor and delivery, birth defects and infections.
Apnea: Premature babies sometimes do not breathe regularly. A baby may take a long breath, then a short one, then pause for 5 to 10 seconds before starting to breathe normally. This is called periodic breathing. Apnea is when a baby stops breathing for more than 15 seconds. Apnea may be accompanied by a slow heart rate called bradycardia. Babies in the NICU are constantly monitored for apnea and bradycardia (often called “A’s and B’s”).
Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS): Babies born before 34 weeks of pregnancy often develop RDS. Babies with RDS do not have enough surfactant, which keeps the small air sacs in the lungs from collapsing.
Pneumonia: This lung infection is common in premature and other sick newborns. A baby’s doctors may suspect pneumonia if the baby has difficulty breathing, if her rate of breathing changes, or if the baby has an increased number of apnea episodes.
Many babies who need treatment for breathing problems benefit from respiratory therapy. In fact, neonatal respiratory therapy has become its own medical sub-specialty. A neonatal-pediatric RT is trained to use complex medical equipment to care for the smallest babies with mild to severe breathing challenges. They visit their patients daily or as often as needed and are an important part of your baby’s NICU team.