An infant incubator is a piece of equipment common to pediatric hospitals, birthing centers and neonatal intensive care units. While the unit may serve several specific functions, it is generally used to provide a safe and stable environment for newborn infants, often those who were born prematurely or with an illness or disability that makes them especially vulnerable for the first several months of life.
Perhaps the most obvious function of an infant incubator is to protect infants during the earliest stage of life, when they're most vulnerable. As fully enclosed and controllable environments, incubators can be used to protect babies from a wide range of possible dangers, according to "The Pearson General Studies Manual 2009" by Showick Thorpe and Edgar Thorpe. Incubators are fully temperature controlled, shielding infants from harmful cold, and they provide insulation from outside noise, making it easier for them to get plenty of comfortable rest. Incubator environments can be kept sterile, protecting infants from germs and minimizing the risk of infection. The enclosure also keeps out all airborne irritants like dust and other allergens. The cradle of the incubator is a roomy and comfortable surface, so it's possible to leave the infant in place while many examinations and even simple medical procedures are administered. This protects infants from too much handling, which can be a concern in the case of some premature births.
Oxygenation is a therapeutic process in which oxygen is administered directly to facilitate breathing. According to "Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine: Diseases of the Fetus and Infant" by Richard J. Martin and Avroy A. Fanaroff, oxygenation is often administered via the infant incubator environment as a treatment for infant respiratory distress syndrome. This syndrome is the leading cause of death among premature infants, and affects approximately 1% of all other infants. Depending on the model of incubator, one or more pieces of oxygenation equipment may be built into the unit, but most oxygenation equipment is compatible with most incubators. A common method of oxygenation involves a nasal cannula, which pipes oxygen directly into the nostrils. If there is a reason why this method should be avoided, physicians may place a plastic hood over the infant's head that creates a small oxygen environment around the nose and mouth. Another method often chosen for the treatment of premature infants is continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP.
Monitoring and observation equipment is often built into the infant incubator unit, according to "Clinical Engineering Handbook" by Joseph F. Dyro. These instruments can include cardiac monitors, brain-scan equipment, blood-monitoring equipment, thermometers and other instruments for observing vital signs. The consolidation of this equipment in one place minimizes the need to move and handle infants excessively. Also, because of the small, enclosed environment, some data such as temperature and heart rate can be accurately measured without the need for invasive instruments.