What Is The PICU?

The PICU, or Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, is where critically ill or injured children are taken for treatment. Often children are admitted to the PICU when the highest level of care or monitoring is necessary for survival or treatment. The PICU typically has more equipment for testing, monitoring, and treatment than is usually available on a regular hospital unit. The PICU also has a greater presence of nurses available to assist and provide said testing and treatment that requires more monitoring.

Why Do Children Go To The PICU?

While there are many reasons a child may be sent to the PICU, including serious injury or illness, common conditions include:

  • Breathing difficulty

  • Serious infection

  • Heart defects

  • Complications from disorders such as asthma or diabetes

  • Automobile accidents

  • Near-drowning

  • Poisoning

How Long Will My Child Be In The PICU?

Children may be transferred in or out of the PICU depending on condition, recovery, and prognosis. How long a child remains in the PICU depends greatly on the nature of their admission into the PICU, as well as how they are treated. For a surgical follow-up, a child may only spend a few days in the PICU, whereas a seriously ill child may spend weeks or months in the PICU.

Who Works In The PICU?

The PICU is often staffed by a blend of nurses and doctors, all of whom are specialized in the treatment of seriously ill children. It is not uncommon for a variety of specialists to work in the PICU as well, including cardiologists, neurologists, pediatric specialists, and others who may be needed. Asking questions and understanding who is involved in your child's care may reduce the stress and anxiety of the unknown and devastating circumstances.

What To Expect In The PICU:

While it is impossible to know exactly what your child's stay in the PICU may entail, there are a few common elements that you may be exposed to. Kid's Health provides the following information:

IVs are almost universally placed in a child, so as to deliver medication or fluids intravenously. A needle is inserted into a vein to place a small, flexible tube, at which point the needle is removed. Other types of IVs include an arterial line placed in the neck, chest, or groin, that allow for faster delivery or greater quantities of fluids and/or medications.

Medication can be used to treat symptoms of illness or distress. Continually administered medications may be administered through an IV, or may be given orally.

Monitors include equipment used to monitor vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, breathing, and other levels. They are often painless and are attached to a finger or through a sensor, or through a cuff.

Tests may be conducted to assess blood levels, illness, or other information needed. This can include x-rays, MRI, CT scans, blood or urine analysis, or other fluids.

Ventilators are used when a child needs help to breathe for any number of reasons. Oxygen may be provided through a mask or tubing in the nose, or the child may have a tube placed in the throat that is connected to a ventilator.

What You Can Do While Your Child Is In The PICU:

 In the PICU, your child will be cared for by the staff in terms of physical or medical needs. However, as a parent, you provide emotional support for your child. While it is scary and stressful for parents when their children are placed in the PICU, it is often very scary for children. Providing love, support, explanation, and assurances can help ease your child's concern. However, this does not mean that you must attend to your child 24 hours a day. It is important to take breaks and attend to your own needs as well, so that you get enough rest and rejuvenation to best support your child.

What You Can DO For Someone With A Child In The PICU:

  • Offer to help. Volunteer to: walk dogs, do laundry, bring books & magazines, lend a computer if the parents don’t have a laptop, research medical terms, print up PICU terms, babysit older kids, send cards, start prayer groups (should you be so inclined), pick up pumping supplies (if the mother is nursing), be another set of ears when the parents need to hear important information – this could go on and on. Just BE THERE for your friends however they need you.

  • Sit in the waiting room, especially during a procedure.

  • Meet your friends for dinner in the hospital cafeteria. Better yet, BUY them dinner. BEST, BRING them dinner. Most PICU parents forget to eat. If you make an appointment to eat with them, they will have to eat something.

  • If you can’t be there in person, call or email. You might not get a response, but it will definitely be heard and appreciated.

  • Offer to be the mom’s chauffeur.

  • Be the spokesman. The parents will have MANY people that want to know how the baby is doing. Offer to be the point person. Answer questions, email updates, keep everyone else informed.

What You Can BRING:

  • FOOD

  • Comfortable clothes

  • Button-down shirts and zip-up hoodies. These are AMAZING for when parents practice Kangaroo care.

  • Gifts for the nurses. Nurses run hospitals – doctors just drop in. The parents will soon realize this, but they will have a hard time getting out of the hospital to get stuff for the nurses. Help them by bringing cookies, cakes, etc.

  • A PICU Parent Care Kit.

    • tissues

    • hand lotion (EXTREME CARE)

    • lip balm

    • antibacterial lotion

    • energy bars

    • gum, mints, mouth wash

    • tooth brush and toothpaste

    • hairbrush

    • disposable camera

    • hospital parking pass (most hospitals offer long-term parking options, but it’s still pricey)

    • wet wipes

    • BOOKS

    • a notebook and pen so the parent can journal thoughts, treatments, etc.


  • The dad. As if he wasn’t also suffering! The dad’s child is sick, too.

  • The PICU is a roller coaster, and just because you got good news from your friend yesterday doesn’t mean you’ll get good news today. Be prepared for any kind of update.

  • Be the kind of friend your friend needs. Some people want optimistic friends, some want realistic, some want silent pals, some want comedians, and some want all of the above. Know your friend, and LISTEN to what he or she needs. And then BE what s/he needs. Even if that means being the realistic friend when you’re normally Pollyanna. Even if you have to make fart jokes when you’re normally quoting statistics. Even when you have to admit that the baby might not make it. Especially then.

  • Don’t tell the parents how scared you are. THEY ARE MORE SCARED.

  • Saying something is always better than saying nothing. Get over yourself and contact your friend. They will remember that you didn’t. Yep. THEY WILL REMEMBER.

In the end, you know your friend/cousin/neighbor the best. Do what feels right. But do SOMETHING.

The PICU is a hard place to spend time – do what you can to make a few minutes a little brighter. You’ll be glad you did.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:


Pediatric Cancer

Pediatric Caregivers

Pediatric Illness

Pediatric Transplant

How to Help a Friend Whose Child is Seriously Ill

How to Help a Parent of a Special Needs Child

PICU Resources:

A great resource explaining the common types of equipment you’ll see in the PICU can make it a less scary place.

If The Unimaginable Happens:

Child Loss Resources

Grief Resources

How to Help a Parent Who Has Lost a Child

How to Help Someone Who is Grieving

Talking to Children, Birth to Three, About Death

Talking to Children About Death