One of the most intense, yet most rewarding experiences in the field of nursing can be found in a place you may not expect: the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). A day in the life of a neonatal nurse is never the same day twice, with patients ranging from babies who are born mostly healthy to those born with complications. It’s a profession with struggles, but the little victories that make them worthwhile.
In this article, we’ll take a look into the lives of neonatal nurses to find out what exactly their job entails, what it takes to get there, and how you can get started on the path to working in the NICU should you decide it’s the right career path for you. If you’ve ever wondered, “What is a neonatal nurse, and what do they actually do,” then read on.
THE DAY TO DAY JOB OF A NEONATAL NURSE
There are four different levels of care in a hospital’s neonatal unit, and a neonatal nurse could be assigned to any one of them, or work multiple levels. The first is the nursery, where healthy, full-term babies go until their parents can take them home from the hospital. Levels two through four are organized in escalating order of severity, with level four housing the most serious cases.
Level two is for babies who were full term but have fallen ill, infants born on the latter end of preterm but still early, and those with more minor health issues. Three is where infants born very prematurely, with major respiratory issues, or with defects. Level four is where babies born with major chronic issues requiring sustained care are placed. Some smaller hospitals will only have levels one and two, and then transfer more serious cases to larger and better-equipped facilities, while some can house all levels of care. In all cases, the duty of the NICU nurse encompasses both care for their infant patients and assisting the parents emotionally coping with the situation.
Kathleen Colduvell, a NICU nurse with a decade of experience under her belt, described the highs and lows of the job — the emotional toll it takes and the reward of seeing a patient make it through — on a blog entry for a nursing website:
“Even though there has been more heartache than I care to remember, the success stories make every single minute of my shifts worthwhile. We fight to help our patients breathe on their own, take bottles independently, and achieve their developmental milestones, and that is such a reward.”
A neonatal nurse’s shifts are often 12 hours long, and at variable times, as their tiny patients often need round the clock care. The babies are fed every three hours, and the nurse will often conduct any testing or procedures like blood draws during feedings to make sure the infant can spend the majority of their time on rest and recovery. The amount each baby can eat needs to be monitored and adjusted according to their condition, vitals need to be checked, and a plethora of other variables need attending to for each patient. In addition to these duties, a NICU nurse will often end up helping the babies’ families, explaining care and procedures to them to keep them informed.
A common saying in the nursing world, and to which the NICU is no exception, is that “there is no typical day.” Neonatal nurses have to be close by their patients to lend them the best possible care, especially since babies can’t articulate what may be happening with them. Anyone who describes the job will tell you it can be challenging, but also that they love it and wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. One nurse described helping parents care for their child for the first time as especially rewarding:
“…there are a thousand amazing great things about being a NICU nurse. You can be the first person to help a mom see, touch, or even hold her fragile little preemie. You get to help people become parents for the first time and do ‘normal’ parent things like change diapers for the 1st [sic] time while working alongside an oscillator and IV pumps. We facilitate all those early and important bonding tasks, regardless of the baby’s acuity, there’s always something the parents can do and we get to show them that.”
JOB OUTLOOK AND REQUIREMENTS FOR NEONATAL NURSES
In order to specialize in neonatal nursing, you need to already have completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. After that, two or more years of experience working with neonatal patients and a passing score on the certification exam for neonatal nursing must be completed. Areas of care recommended for gaining those years of clinical experience include:
- Labor and delivery nursing
- Maternal-child nursing
- Pediatric nursing
- Well baby nursing
There are two main routes candidates for a neonatal nursing job usually take to become certified: a critical care neonatal nursing certification (CCRN) via the American Association of Critical Care Nursing, or an RNC Certification for Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing (RNC-NIC) via the National Certification Corporation. If you wish to further certify to gain a leg up on the competition and increase your job prospects, you can choose to get one of the following certifications:
- Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) certification
- Basic Life Support (BLS) certification
- Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP) certification
Nurses can pursue some or all of the above to reinforce their professional tool kit. Continuing education programs through accredited providers like the National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) are also necessary to remain at the top of your game as you progress along a career path in the NICU.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a rise in demand and a healthy job outlook for the nursing field as a whole over the next decade, and that demand will be even higher for nursing professionals in specialized fields. As a large portion of the nursing workforce nears retirement, more will need to be recruited to replace them. The median salary for a registered nurse is around $73,500 according to the BLS, but respondents on Payscale report an average salary of $97,306.
HOW YOU CAN TAKE THE NEXT STEP
At D’Youville Online, we’ve designed our online RN to BSN program with working nurses in mind, to let you gain the knowledge and skills necessary for the next level of your career on your time. Our courses run the gambit from evidence-based practice to enhancing patient outcomes, and you can complete the clinical component of the program where you already work.
Our program is CCNE accredited and taught by passionate, highly-educated professionals actively working in the field of nursing. A rolling admissions policy means you can sign up when you want, and the program can be completed in as little as two years. If you’re ready to advance yourself and your career visit our website for a detailed breakdown of courses and credit hours required.