Neonatal nursing is a branch of healthcare that focuses on providing care for infants who are born prematurely or are suffering from health problems such as birth defects, infections, or heart deformities. Neonatal nurses are registered nurses who specialize in working with these young, vulnerable patients. Many neonatal nurses work in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), providing highly specialized medical care to at-risk newborns.
Neonatal nursing is a subspecialty of nursing that works with newborn infants born with a variety of problems ranging from prematurity, birth defects, infection, cardiac malformations, and surgical problems.
Monitoring specialized equipment, including incubators and ventilators.
Providing education and support to patients’ families regarding neonatal, intensive and, postpartum care.
Communicate with parents/guardians the plan of care and scope of treatment.
Dispensing medications under a collaborative agreement with a physician.
Performing diagnostic tests and other procedures, such as intubation and blood draws.
Ensuring proper feeding and basic care.
Consult with physicians and other nurses on a plan of care, progress, and prognosis.
Those who wish to become a neonatal registered nurse must first complete a nursing program that prepares them to become a registered nurse. Student nurses have the option of earning an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree. Professional nursing associations are encouraging candidates to pursue a bachelor's degree for greater education and advancement opportunities in the healthcare industry. Bachelor's degree programs tend to require additional business management, advanced nursing, communication and science courses.
Licensure is required for all registered nurses, regardless of specialty. This mandate extends to all 50 states. To practice as a registered nurse, graduates must pass the six-hour National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). To maintain their licenses, registered nurses must also earn continuing education credits as mandated by their respective state licensing board.
A number of NICUs require nurses to gain experience working with children or infants prior to being hired. The Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) notes that some nursing schools offer internship opportunities for students to build this experience prior to graduation. Other opportunities include working in pediatrics or a hospital’s nursery before applying or undertaking an on-the-job training program offered by select NICUs.
Though an optional step, many neonatal nurses complete certifications to hone their skills and demonstrate competence. NCC (National Certification Corporation) offers certification to neonatal nurses. Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing and Low-Risk Neonatal Nursing credentials are available to RN with the required amount of experience in the field. The Neonatal Nurse Practitioner credential is offered to RNs with a DNP (Doctor of Nurse Practitioner) or post-master's certificate or master's in neonatal nurse practitioner.
Though only a registered nursing license is required to work as a neonatal nurse, those looking to better their chances for advancement can become a neonatal advanced practice nurse by undertaking a master’s degree. Many students choose to complete this program via online learning, allowing them to continue gaining work experience while pursuing their degree.
The associate degree in nursing typically takes two years to complete and includes a blend of classroom instruction and clinical training. After finishing their degree and becoming licensed, graduates can move directly into work as a registered nurse. Once obtaining a nursing position, they can begin training for a neonatal unit, maternity floor, or other opportunities leading to work as a neonatal nurse.
A bachelor’s degree builds on associate level coursework, providing more in-depth classes and a greater focus on advanced skills and knowledge. The bachelor’s degree also forms a solid stepping-stone for those who want to eventually earn a master’s degree. In addition to general education courses, bachelor’s level nursing programs prepare students for the rigors of working in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, private practices, and community clinics. Those who plan to work as neonatal nurses can tailor their courses to include electives focused on pediatric and infant care.
Master’s degrees in nursing are popular options for those seeking opportunities for advancement and higher earning potential. Programs typically take two to three years to complete, depending upon how much time a student is able to devote to their studies. Most graduate degree level students are working full-time, making online programs a popular option.
Students who have already earned a master’s degree and have several years of experience working in a neonatal unit may decide to pursue a doctoral program. Those who want to work as hands-on neonatal nurses can earn the DNP or the DN with an emphasis on neonatal care, preparing them to work in the best NICU units in the country.