What is a Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse | NICU

A neonatal intensive care unit nurse (NICU) specializes in providing medical care to infants with life-threatening health problems.

These specialists treat infant illnesses, infections, congenital disabilities, cardiovascular issues, and other health issues.

In most cases, NICU nurses manage health problems that arise while giving birth or shortly after birth.

Neonatal care often begins right after the baby is born and generally lasts until they discharge the child from the hospital.

In many cases, they treat babies within the first month of birth.

However, in certain circumstances, neonatal nurses provide medical care to children for up to the first two years of birth.

What Do NICU Nurses Do?

A neonatal intensive care unit nurse is responsible for identifying and treating healthcare problems in newborn babies.

They use their knowledge and skillset to apply the proper medical procedure to stabilize the infant’s medical condition.

The ultimate goal of NICU nurses is to bring the child back to total health.

Neonatal intensive care unit nurses have numerous responsibilities to ensure infant care.

These specialists evaluate the condition of newborn infants and administer treatments to keep them in optimal health.

They also monitor vitals, administer medications, provide CPR, and perform other life-saving procedures.

As a result, NICU nurses must be skilled at performing neonatal resuscitation and managing various medical equipment.

They may also carry out other neonatal care-related medical tasks prescribed by the physician or nurse practitioner.

NICU Nurse Duties:

  • Monitor the health and vital signs of newborn infants
  • Administer necessary medications to assist in the medical procedure or recovery process of newborns
  • Monitor and manage blood flow and breathing to minimize the chances of brain damage and loss of life
  • Perform CPR and life-saving procedures on infants suffering from respiratory issues or breathing problems
  • Provide circulatory stimulation and blood flow management procedures to stimulate and maintain blood flow pathways
  • Oversee the short or long-term care of sick or ill newborns in the hospital until they discharge the infant
  • Maintain medical records
  • Assist neonatal nurse practitioners and other neonatal care professionals during medical procedures

And other duties related to neonatal care.

Medical Team

A neonatal intensive care unit nurse often works with registered nurses, physicians, and practitioners to ensure infants receive adequate care.

A NICU is a dedicated facility or designated area often located in a hospital specializing solely in neonatal care.

A dedicated NICU team enables hospitals and healthcare centers to provide families with reliable infant healthcare.

It also significantly improves infant mortality rates and reduces birth complications.

According to Tommys.org, 1 in 10 infants in the U.S. requires NICU care due to premature birth or other complications.

Accordingly, NICU nurses play a vital role in caring for and recovering newborn infants.

They use their expertise to rehabilitate infants and ensure they recover from birth difficulties before leaving the hospital.

The Three Levels Of NICU Nursing

Neonatal care nursing comprises four areas or levels of infant care.

It includes level 1, level 2, level 3, and level 4 NICU nursing.

The following section explores these levels to provide a more comprehensive understanding of NICU nurses’ various roles.

Level 1 | Basic Newborn Care

Level 1 neonatal nurses are in charge of looking after and caring for healthy newborn infants with little or no need for extended medical care.

While level 1 neonatal nurses are still in the field today, they are much less common.

Most hospitals and healthcare facilities leave healthy infants in the care of their mothers and generally discharge the family after a relatively short period.

Level 2 | Advanced Newborn Care

Level 2 neonatal nurses provide intermediary care and medical support to infants needing additional care and medical oversight before discharging them.

Some level 2 nurses care for premature infants, infants with slight respiratory problems, and infants with potential health implications.

Level 3 | Neonatal ICU

Level 3 neonatal nurses work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

These nurses provide medical support to children with more severe ailments that level 1 and 2 neonatal nurses cannot treat.

Level 3 nurses treat severe respiratory problems, physical abnormalities, sick babies, and those requiring immediate surgery.

Level 4 | Advanced ICU

Level 4 neonatal nurses operate at the highest level of care.

In this setting, infants may have severe congenital disabilities or other health issues requiring constant oversight and medical care.

They also require life-saving medical equipment to stay stable and assist with recovery.

How To Become A NICU Nurse

The path to becoming a NICU nurse is relatively straightforward.

However, entering this field requires time, deduction, education, and skill set.

The following section explores the necessary steps to become a neonatal intensive care nurse.

1 Join an Accredited Nursing Program

Those interested in becoming neonatal intensive care unit nurses must first obtain an ADN or BSN degree.

These programs provide students with valuable education and skills necessary to work as registered nurses.

The ADN takes approximately two years to complete.

It enables aspiring nurses to enter the field quickly in entry-level positions to earn an income and gain valuable work experience. 

With that said, most healthcare facilities prefer nurses with a BSN due to the complexity of the position.

The BSN degree is a four-year program that provides more comprehensive training and nursing.

It enables registered nurses to pursue higher-level roles and over one hundred specializations.

Before joining an accredited program, students must possess a diploma or GED.

Most universities require students to possess prior education to participate in the college curriculum.

Students must also complete prerequisite courses and maintain a GPA to qualify for nursing school.

The required GPA varies depending on the nursing school a student pursues.

As a result, many students apply to numerous nursing programs to maximize their odds of getting accepted.

Once in the program, students will spend two to four years obtaining an education in nursing.

At the end of nursing school, students must pass the NCLEX exam to obtain their license and work as registered nurses.

2. Obtain Work Experience

Once you’ve obtained your nursing license is essential to receive work experience in a field related to pediatric care.

For instance, you can pursue pediatric nursing, labor, and delivery nursing, maternal-child nursing, or well-baby nursing.

The NICU certification exam recommends that registered nurses obtain at least two years of experience before applying.

Some hospitals also offer mentorship for neonatal nursing to educate and train aspiring NICU nurses adequately.

Finally, you can apply for a level 1 neonatal nurse position or look for volunteer work to gain an entry-level position.

Complete the NICU Certification Exam

The final step to becoming a NICU nurse is to obtain certification.

Not all healthcare facilities or positions require NICU certification.

The NCIU certification exam aims to ensure healthcare facilities that you have adequate training and expertise.

Registered nurses with NICU certification may have more opportunities to earn higher wages and secure specific jobs.

Several institutions offer certification for this occupation.

It includes the CCRN, C-NNIC, RNC-NIC, C-ELBW, and RNC-LRN(R)) certifications.

These certification exams typically recommend that nurses obtain two years of experience in a pediatric care setting.

It would be best to determine whether obtaining certification is necessary or beneficial to your career.

Those interested in playing a more substantial role in neonatal nursing may pursue an MSN or DNP degree.

It enables them to move into more specialized areas of healthcare and further their experience as healthcare professionals.