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When Your Child’s in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit

It can be stressful whenever kids are in the hospital — and even more so when they’re in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). Understanding the people and equipment in the PICU can help you feel better prepared to help your child.

What’s the PICU?

The PICU is the section of the hospital that provides sick children with the highest level of medical care. It differs from other parts of the hospital, like the general medical floors. In the PICU, kids get intensive nursing care and close monitoring of things like heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.

The PICU also lets medical staff provide therapies that might not be available in other parts of the hospital. These can include ventilators (breathing machines) and medicines that are used only under close medical supervision.

Who’s Sent to the PICU?

Kids go to the PICU if they are seriously ill, need intensive care, and have medical needs that can’t be met on the hospital’s main medical floors. This might include kids with severe breathing problems from asthma, serious infections, some complications of diabetes, or those involved in a serious automobile accident or near-drowning.

Sometimes, kids who were stable enough to be cared for on the hospital’s medical-surgical floors move to the PICU if they become more acutely ill. After major surgery, many children get care in the PICU for several days.

How long kids stay in the PICU depends on their condition. Some might stay a single day, while others stay for weeks or even months. As always, ask the doctor or nurse caring for your child if you have questions.

Who Takes Care of Kids in the PICU?

The PICU has many highly skilled people who care for kids. But not knowing who everyone is and what they do can be confusing and a little overwhelming at first. Most people will introduce themselves and tell you how they’re involved in your child’s care. If they don’t, feel free to ask. At all times, you should feel comfortable asking the doctors and nurses questions about your child and the care being given.

The nurses who work in the PICU are experienced in caring for the sickest children in the hospital. They’re the people most closely involved with the minute-to-minute care of the kids. The PICU also tends to have a higher nurse-to-patient ratio than other parts of the hospital (in other words, each nurse cares for fewer patients, which gives them more time with your child).

Many doctors may care for your child, but the attending physicians are in charge. Your child might be cared for by a pediatric intensivist. This is a doctor who did a 3-year residency in pediatrics after medical school, followed by 3 more years of subspecialty fellowship training in intensive care.

The PICU team may include residents (doctors who’ve completed medical school and are training to be pediatricians) and PICU fellows (pediatricians training to be attending intensivists).

Many other subspecialists, such as cardiologists (heart doctors) or neurosurgeons (brain surgeons), might be involved, depending on your child’s needs. Respiratory therapists are experienced with ventilators and other breathing equipment, and are often involved in the care of PICU patients with breathing problems. Also, physical therapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, and pharmacists may play a role in your child’s care.

You also might meet social workers who help families cope with the emotional burdens of having a critically ill child. They can arrange temporary housing for families (through organizations like Ronald McDonald House), help with insurance issues, or coordinate discharge planning when your child is ready to go home.

You may want to ask if the hospital has Child Life specialists. Trained in fields like development, education, psychology, and counseling, they help kids understand and manage being in the hospital. For example, they’ll listen when a child needs to talk, calm fears about what’s happening, or provide distractions like books and games.

The medical team meets every day, usually in the morning, to discuss each patient’s case in detail. These discussions are known as rounds. You may see a group of doctors, nurses, and others walking from patient to patient, planning the medical care for each patient. During rounds, you may be asked to stay in your child’s room or to not enter or exit the PICU. This is to protect the privacy of other patients.

Family-centered patient care might be practiced in the PICU. If this is the case, you’ll be asked to join in your child’s daily rounds. If you’re not there during rounds or don’t want to join, the attending physician will talk with you about the daily goals for your child by phone or in person.

What Should Kids Expect While in the PICU?

You might be surprised to see the medical equipment used to care for your child. The machines have alarms and display panels, and the noise and lights can be overwhelming.

Your child’s stay in the PICU might include:

  • IVs. Almost all kids in the PICU have an intravenous catheter (or IV) for fluids and medicines — usually in the hands or arms, but sometimes in the feet, legs, or even scalp. An IV is a thin, flexible tube inserted into the vein with a small needle. Once in the vein, the needle is removed, leaving just the soft plastic tubing.

    Sometimes, larger IVs are needed to deliver greater volumes of fluids and medicines. These are known as central lines because they’re inserted into the larger, more central veins of the chest, neck, or groin. Arterial lines are very similar to IVs, but they’re placed in arteries, not veins, and generally are used to monitor blood pressure and oxygen levels in the blood, not to give medicine.

  • Medicines. Some medicines can have dangerous side effects. These are given to children only when they’re closely monitored in the PICU. Instead of being given every few hours, some are given continuously, several IV drops at a time, and are known as drips. Doctors may use these medicines — like epinephrine, dopamine, and morphine — to help with heart function, blood pressure, or pain relief.
  • Monitors. Kids in the PICU are attached to monitors. These are secured to the body with chest leads, which are small painless stickers connected to wires. These leads can count a child’s heart rate and breathing rate. Many kids are also connected to a pulse oximetry (pulse-ox) machine to check blood oxygen levels. Also painless, this machine is attached to the fingers or toes like a small bandage and emits a soft red light. Unless blood pressure is being directly monitored through an arterial catheter, kids usually will also have a blood pressure cuff around their arm or leg.
  • Tests. Doctors may order a variety of tests to get more information, such as blood tests and urine tests. Sometimes they’ll test cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Images or pictures of different parts of the body also might be taken through an X-ray, ultrasound, computed tomography (also called a CT or CAT scan), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Ventilators. Kids in the PICU sometimes need extra help to breathe. This may mean getting some extra oxygen from a face mask or tubing in the nose. But sometimes, a child needs to be connected to the ventilator (or breathing machine). This is done with an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube placed into the windpipe through the mouth or nose) or a tracheostomy (a plastic tube inserted directly through the skin into the windpipe) connected to the ventilator on the other end. There are different kinds of ventilators, but they all do the same thing: help a child breathe. A child will get sedative and pain relief medicines while the breathing tube is in their windpipe.

Taking Care of Yourself

In the PICU, your child’s physical needs will be met by the staff. Parents are there to give emotional support, love, and a familiar voice or touch. But you shouldn’t feel that you have to stay at your child’s bedside every minute of the day. Getting away from the commotion of the PICU briefly or even leaving the hospital grounds can help you gather your thoughts.

Staying around the clock with a child who’s in the PICU for more than a few days can be both physically and emotionally draining. Although some hospitals let parents spend the night with their child, some do not. Often, hospital staff will encourage parents to go home, get a good night’s rest, and return to the PICU refreshed in the morning. This can can help them be even more of a comfort to their child.

If the hospital lets parents spend the night, the decision whether to stay in your child’s room is yours. Either way, the PICU staff will support you and reassure you that your child will be well cared for. Whatever you do, make sure you get enough rest to be able to support your child throughout the PICU stay.

When Kids Leave the PICU

Some kids go home right from the PICU. Many, though, move to a regular floor of the hospital for further, less-intense monitoring and follow-up care. Still, discharge from the PICU is an important milestone on the road to recovery. It means that a child no longer needs such an intensive level of monitoring, therapy, and/or nursing care.

But leaving the PICU might also cause some anxiety. It’s not unusual for parents of kids who were in the PICU to think, “He was so sick. Even though he’s better, shouldn’t he stay here until he’s completely back to normal?” But the doctors and nurses in the PICU won’t transfer kids before they’re ready and stable. And the team on the hospital’s regular floor has the resources needed to continue guiding your child’s recovery.

Caring for a critically ill child can be a challenge. Work with the PICU care team, and ask when you have questions. This will help you support your child and plan for when the entire family is home together again.