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Learning About Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC) in Newborns

What is necrotizing enterocolitis?

Necrotizing enterocolitis (say "NEK-ruh-ty-zing en-tuh-roh-kuh-LY-tus"), or NEC, is serious damage to tissue in the intestine (bowel). It is usually caused by a lack of blood flow to a part of the bowel. Bacteria can grow there and cause an infection. This may damage the bowel more. As NEC gets worse, the baby will not be able to feed.

NEC can happen in infants and babies. It happens more often in premature newborns.

If the damage is not severe and treatment works well, the baby may be able to feed within 3 to 10 days.

Your baby may need special care, such as being in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This may be scary for you. But the hospital staff understands this. They will explain what happens and will answer your questions.

How is it treated?

  • The doctor will watch your baby closely. Your baby will get fluids, medicines (including antibiotics), and nutrition through a blood vessel. This helps your baby fight the infection and lets the tissue heal.
  • If the damage to the bowel is severe, your baby may need surgery. The doctor may remove the damaged part of the bowel. The bowel may then be repaired. Your baby may also need an ostomy. This makes the stool leave the body through an opening in the belly and collects it in a bag. A second surgery usually will be done to close the ostomy so that stool can pass through the body normally again. Your baby will be asleep during surgery.

What can you expect?

  • You may see tubes and wires attached to your baby. This can be scary to see. But these things help the doctor treat your baby. The tubes supply air, fluid, and medicines to your baby. The wires are attached to machines that help the doctor keep track of your baby's vital signs. These include temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, and pulse rate.
  • The hospital staff will give your baby the nutrition your baby needs. The doctor may feed your baby through an I.V. that goes into a blood vessel.
  • Your baby will be kept comfortable and warm.
  • It may seem that your baby is getting lots of tests. All of these tests help your doctor keep track of your baby's condition and give the best treatment possible.
  • It's hard to be apart from your baby, especially when you worry about their condition. Know that the hospital staff is well prepared to care for babies with this condition. They will do everything they can to help. If you need it, get support from friends and family. Ask the hospital staff about counselling and support.

Where can you learn more?

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