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How to Become a Neonatal Nurse

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at CTU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

To become a Neonatal Nurse, either an associate's degree in nursing or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is required. It's also required to become licensed. This can be done by passing the Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing exam.

Registered nurses (RNs) with a particular interest in newborns may consider neonatal nursing as a career option. Neonatal nurses assist with the care of newborns delivered prematurely or considered at risk, but their duties can also encompass care for infants who experience long-term problems related to an early birth or illness after birth. There are approximately 40,000 low-birth-weight infants born annually in the U.S., but survival rates are ten times higher now than they were 15 years ago thanks to these advanced practice nurses, physicians and medical advances.1

While this field may be fulfilling, there are some character traits, educational requirements and certifications a prospective nurse should be aware of before pursuing a career in neonatal nursing.

Skills and Characteristics

Neonatal nurses should possess all the nursing skills of a registered nurse in addition to the skills relevant to providing nursing care for at-risk newborns and their families. First and foremost, they should have a great desire to nurture infants and enjoy caring for them. They must demonstrate the ability to tolerate and understand infant activities and behaviors, for example, changing diapers quickly and carefully and listening to babies cry without losing patience.2

Neonatal nurses should have the ability to handle the intense emotional stress that accompanies newborns in life-and-death situations. They should also have a strong sense of empathy, compassion and excellent communication skills, along with the aptitude to not to let personal feelings interfere with critical thinking. Neonatal nurses may function as communicators between doctors and parents, so they must be able to effectively communicate medical status and procedures between medical professionals and families.2

Neonatal nurses should also maintain excellent professionalism and have an attention to detail under stress in order to accurately care for critically ill infants. The capacity to make independent decisions and quickly deal with emotions, refocus and re-engage in responsibilities is crucial.2

Required Education

Aspiring nurses must first complete the requirements of becoming an RN by obtaining an associate degree, diploma or bachelor's degree from an accredited nursing degree program.1,3 Prospective nurses must also go through a period of supervised clinical experience and obtain a nursing license. To become a licensed RN, a student must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Depending on the state in which a person lives, they may also need to meet other requirements for licensing.2

After graduation, a potential neonatal nurse may want to gain experience working in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Some NICUs require prior experience in infant care, such as pediatrics, but others will hire new graduate nurses with an active interest in the field. Those planning to become a neonatal nurse should practice in a level III NICU as a staff nurse before applying to a graduate program.1

In order to become an advanced practice nurse, such as a neonatal nurse, an individual must obtain a master’s or doctoral degree. Advance practice nurses work with physicians and other nursing staff to provide comprehensive care to infants and often share their expertise with a multidisciplinary team to take on medical management for a group of critically ill infants.1 Accordingly, it is important to have the experience and education necessary to handle such a specialized field of nursing.

Certifications and Licenses

After working in a neonatal unit and receiving a graduate degree, many nurses choose to take a national certification exam to validate their knowledge. Certification can be obtained for Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing through the National Certification Corporation. There are four competency areas for Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing (RN), including general assessment, physiology and pathophysiology, pharmacology and professional practice. Organizations, like the National Association of Neonatal Nurses, assist members in obtaining continuing nursing education (CNE) credits and maintaining their certification.4 The Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) also offers a national certification for nurses interested in being certified in NICUs, cardiac care units, ICUs, trauma units or critical care transport.5

Job Market for Neonatal Nurses

Neonatal nursing careers can also encompass a variety of positions, each requiring a different amount of education or certification. Some of these careers include staff nurses caring for acutely ill infants, nurse managers in NICUs, and developmental care specialists who have studied the progressive care of sick and preterm infants. Clinical nurse specialists can provide education programs, direct patient care, and support to nursing staff at the bedside.1

In general, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the job market for advanced practice nurses of all types will grow by 31%, or faster than average, through 2024. Health care legislation, demand for health care services for a large, aging population, and a greater emphasis on preventive care are factors cited as stimulating this growth.6

What to Expect on a Day-to-Day Basis

Neonatal nurses often work in hospitals, either in level II nurseries with less acute patients or level III nursery units with the most critically ill infants. In some cases, these nurses work in community settings and at-home or follow-up care for high-risk patients. Neonatal nurses in a hospital can expect to work with multiple patients throughout their shift. Since neonatal critical care is an around-the-clock department, shifts tend to be 12-hours and include weekend and holiday work.1

On a daily basis, neonatal nurses may face the stress of caring for infants with medical conditions such as prematurity, birth defects, infection, cardiac malformations and surgical problems.1 This may also mean providing emotional support and empathy to worried parents.2 Being a neonatal nurse can be highly stressful, but a myriad of rewards can outweighing the pressures of this career, including making a difference in the lives of infants and their families.

Earn a Nursing Degree from CTU

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program at Colorado Technical University (CTU) is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education ( CTU’s RN-to-BSN program aims to build on a student’s foundational nursing knowledge and teach real-world nursing education. Learn more about CTU’s nursing degree programs.

1. “Is a Career in Neonatal Nursing Right for You?” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/14/17).
2. “Top 5 Qualities Every Neonatal Nurse Should Embody.” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/14/17).
3. “How to Become a Registered Nurse.” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/14/17).
4. “Certification exams: Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing.” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/14/17).
5. “CCRN (Neonatal).” Retrieved from: (Visited 8/14/17).
6. "Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners." Retrieved from (Visited 8/14/17). This data represents national figures and is not based on school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.

For important information about the educational debt, earnings, and completion rates of students who attended this program, go to CTU cannot guarantee employment or salary. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. Financial aid is available for those who qualify.
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