A neonatal nurse is a registered nurse (RN) trained to take care of newborn infants. Babies often have health problems stemming from prematurity, infections, illnesses, birth defects or surgical problems. While the term "neonatal" generally refers to the first 28 days of a newborn's life, some babies are sick for months or even years. Neonatal nursing is a relatively new speciality that has only been around since the 1960s.
Neonatal Nursery Levels
Neonatal nurses work in Level I, II or III nurseries. Level I nurseries handle the healthy newborns. A Level II neonatal nursery nurse cares for babies who need specialised feedings, intravenous (IV) therapy, supplemental oxygen or just a little more time to mature. Level III nurseries, also called neonatal intensive care unites (NICUs), handle the critically ill babies. These newborns are premature or sick babies who need high-tech care, such as incubators, ventilators or surgery.
Neonatal nursing duties vary widely according to experience. Many neonatal nurses help to deliver babies, perform exams, administer medications and monitor any life-assisting machines. More experienced neonatal nurses often perform complex medical procedures, such as lumbar punctures, intubations and line placements. Some nurses work on neonatal transport teams, while others assist surgeons during operations on newborns. Neonatal nurse practitioners typically work directly with physicians to determine what kind of specialised care a sick newborn needs.
Every state requires its neonatal nurses to first earn an RN degree from an accredited nursing program. Nursing educational programs are usually completed in two years for an associate's degree or four years for a bachelor's degree. While a few programs offer elective courses in neonatal care, there are currently no special neonatal nursing programs available at the undergraduate level. Many neonatal nursing professionals pursue a master's degree in nursing and become neonatal nurse practitioners (NPs).
Aspiring neonatal nurses must first pass the NCLEX-RN, the national licensing exam for registered nurses. All states require RNs to renew their state licenses every two to three years. Most states require all nursing professionals to meet specific continuing education (CE) requirements before license renewal. Entry-level requirements for neonatal nurses vary according to the health facility. Some states require neonatal nurses to obtain special certification. The National Certification Corporation offers various certification exams for neonatal nurses (see Resources).
Career Outlook and Salary
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the overall employment outlook for professional nurses will remain excellent through the year 2016. Nurse practitioners should be in exceptionally high demand. A majority of neonatal nurses work in the NICU units of large hospitals. Experienced neonatal nurses might move into management roles or continue schooling to become neonatal nurse practitioners. The BLS reports that the average yearly income of RNs was £37,232 in 2006.