Raising Chicks: The NICU in my basement

As I look back on my first week as a “Mama Hen” caring for the chicks, I am amused at how my time as a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) Nurse has prepared me for this task. The chicks are really just little babies needing lots of tender loving care, just like my NICU babies.


In the NICU we always have to be ready to get a baby a any moment, you never know when one is going to walk in the door and fall out in the elevator or surprise…you didn’t know your were pregnant?…with twins? You get the idea, sometimes we know ahead of time a baby is coming and sometimes we don’t you just never know, so we have to be prepared. This means always having a warm place setup for the baby to go once they are born.

  • In the NICU we call this the radiant warmer. Essentially a small table with a mattress and an adjustable heater over the top. Upon admission to NICU the baby is placed under the warmer, this allows us easy access to the baby to monitor them closely and preform procedures, while still keeping the baby warm. A temperature probe is placed on the baby so the heater knows to warm or cool the baby. NICU babies are at risk for cold stress which can lead to complications. Many of the babies that come to us are premature, which means their skin hasn’t developed completely, making it even more difficult for them to stay warm. In cases of small babies, we typically try to move them from the radiant warmer to an isolette (baby incubator) as soon as possible. The isolette will regulate their temperature better because it is not open and allows us the additional option of providing humidity.
  • The first baby incubators were developed in the 1860s looked like an old-fashioned stove and were similar to the incubators used for chicken eggs. This link has a great synopsis of the history of the isolette written by a NICU mom, I had know idea a “baby sideshow” funded research for isolettes: http://stinacaxe.hubpages.com/hub/caxe21incubator
Old School Incubator...I think that is a wood stove on the bottom.
Old school incubator from the 1800s…I think that is a wood stove on the bottom.
This one is a little fancier
This one is a little fancier
1965, one of the first NICUs opened in the US at Yale (New Haven, CT)
1965, one of the first NICUs opened in the US at Yale (New Haven, CT) I think we still have a few of these originals kicking around, but they don’t make the parts anymore.
Modern day isolate, we call this one the "giraffe" because the top opens and it can function as an isolette or a radiant warmer, perfect for the littlest babies.
Modern day isolette, we call this one the “giraffe” because the top opens and it can function as an isolette or a radiant warmer, perfect for the littlest babies.

So I guess the NICU and raising chicks was even more related than I originally thought. Much like the NICU, we had to provide a warm space for the chicks to go once they arrived. Luckily, we did know they were coming and the post office called us early in the morning to pick them up before they opened. Our “mini NICU” also known as “the brooder” is setup with a heat lamp to keep our chicks warm at all times. It essentially functions as the radiant warmer but not as sophisticated. We adjust the temperature by raising or lowering the heat lamp. The chicks tell us what they need…if they are huddled under the light they are cold and we lower it to be closer to them…if they are on the edge of the brooder, avoiding the heater, then it is too hot, so we raise up the light to lower the temperature. About every week, as they grow more feathers, they can tolerate approximately a 5 degree reduction in temperature. Recommended starting temperatures are about 90-95 degrees.

The Brooder...ready for the chicks to arrive, after the first day we removed one of the heat lamps, but we still have one as a back up.
The Brooder…ready for the chicks to arrive, after the first day we removed one of the heat lamps, but we still have one as a back up.
Brooder with chicks, today we added some leaves as bedding for them to play with
Brooder with chicks, today we added some leaves as bedding for them to play with

Teaching them to eat…

Feeding is one of the most important aspects of the NICU. Many babies need to be fed through a feeding tube for weeks, until they can gradually learn to take a bottle or breastfeed. They know how to suck very early, but the trouble is getting them the suck, swallow, and breathe in a coordinated way. This is an extremely difficult task for some NICU babies that can take weeks to learn, but essential in order to go home. Babies in the NICU eat on a schedule, every 3 hours, around the clock. One nurse might have 3 or 4 babies, that adds up in a 12 hour shift, once nurse might have 12-16 feedings. Thank goodness, I didn’t have to bottle feed the chicks! However, I did teach them how to drink water on their first day. As I picked each chick out of the box I immediately dipped their beak into the water and forced them to take a drink after their long journey. The first day we gave them crushed garlic and honey mixed in with the water. Since then we just give them water and sometimes add a little raw apple cider vinegar.

The chicks really "get into" their food
The chicks really “get into” their food

Diaper problems…

How many diapers do I change in a shift? At least as many times as I feed babies…12-16, sometimes every hour or more, it depends. Anyways, I see a lot of diaper rash. All of our babies get preventative “butt treatments” with diaper changes, this means a little Aquaphor (basically, vaseline, but this is what we use where I work now). If that doesn’t work we go to stronger measures. Sometimes I even take “extreme measures” aka no diaper, to let things heal. Anyways, on day 2 my chicks started having problems, it’s called “pasty butt.” I’ve read it is caused by stress, hot or cold and is common when chicks come through the mail like ours did, sometimes it happens even if you do everything right. I think for ours it was a combination of the mail and we might have had the brooder a little too warm the first day being overly cautious. Pasty butt is a build-up of poop on the chick’s vent, without prompt treatment the vent can become blocked and this can be fatal for the chick. The Chicken Chick offers some great advice on how to deal with this issue. I took her advice and performed the most elaborate “butt treatment” ever. This involves running warm water over the chick’s butt to loosen and remove the poop, you have to be super careful and patient not to pull to hard on their delicate feathers, but also work quickly so they don’t get to cold while exposed to the water. Then I buff them dry with the towel, followed by the blow-dryer to fluff them back up, otherwise they might get picked at by the other chicks. Then of course, to prevent further problems, a little dab of Aquaphor (this was what I had available). Ridiculous to say the least, didn’t foresee myself passing time washing chicken butts, but there I was tending to my chicks. Since my elaborate treatments, I’ve only had a few repeat offenders, and today everyone seemed in the clear. We also changed their diet a bit, offering them some sprouted grain, crumbled hard-boiled egg, and grit.

"Pasty Butt"
“Pasty Butt”
After treatment and "re-fluffing"
After treatment and “re-fluffing”

On another note, during my chicken butt research I learned that chicks have umbilical cords that dry up and fall off just like human ones. I never would have thought of this, but they really do have them and one of them fell off in my hand.


Much of daily life in the NICU is about “maintaining” just trying to stay healthy, eat a little more, grow a little more, work towards going home, we call these babies “feeder-growers.” Sounds like chickens to me. Everyday our chicks get a little bit bigger and a little less downy. After 1 week I have noticed the ends of their wing feathers are the most obvious and some of them have a few tail feathers sprouting out. We plan to have the chickens stay in the brooder for 4-6 weeks. Depending on the weather we will start to wean them outside at around 3-4 weeks. Outside playtime will only be during the day and will be protected from predators.

Her wing feathers are starting to grow out
Her wing feathers are starting to grow out


Babies need sleep to grow, especially in the NICU, but sometimes it is hard to come-by with all the noises…alarms going off, IV pump beeping, feeding pump beeping, talking, etc. We do the best we can, especially at night time we try to keep it as quiet as we can and the lights turned down low. The chicks are silly when it comes to sleep, they all run around so crazy like they have ADD, until finally they are so tired they just drop in place under the light. Literally, sometimes they look like they are dead when they are sleeping, or they will be face planted in the bedding completely sprawled out, really? It doesn’t last though, about 30 seconds after they fall asleep, another ADD chick launches himself over the other one, waking him up and starting the process all over gain. I get tired just watching.

"I think I'll just sleep right here"
“I think I’ll just sleep right here”
Naptime buddies
Naptime buddies

Well I think that’s enough drama for now, more than you probably ever wanted to know about comparing baby chicks and NICU babies. One week down, I feel accomplished that we haven’t had any losses and they are all very active and hopefully happy.


3 thoughts on “Raising Chicks: The NICU in my basement

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