Neonatal Nurse NICU Guide 2023

Debra Riley


Welcome to our Neonatal Nurse guide – part of our series of nursing career guides. This article will cover all you need to know about this career – job description, training, employment prospects, and of course salary information.

Working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) takes special qualities – qualities that reveal dedication and a nature that truly cares.

In practice, a NICU nurse is a specialist registered nurse with extra training and experience.

Let’s get started!

NICU Nurse Job Description

If you work as a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse, you must care for sick babies or infants that were born prematurely. These infants must be carefully monitored for long durations in some instances. Keeping track of their care can, therefore, go on for weeks or months at a time.

When a baby needs this type of care, they are born at a low birth weight. That is why they need to be carefully monitored and managed. Because of advancements in medicine, the survival rates for premature babies are rising. Part of this increase has to do with the care that Neonatal nurses provide.

These specialist nurses provide monitoring, as well as individualized care and feeding. They work and communicate with an infant’s parents to help them through an emotional time. A lot of emphasis is placed on parental care – recognizing the stress involving parents and babies.

Neonatal Nurse Salary

If you learn more about what RNs make, you will know about what to expect in earnings as an NICU nurse. The average pay for Registered Nurses in the US is around $73,550. A NICU Nurse will generally earn more than an RN of similar education and position due to the increased specialization of the job.

Naturally, the amount you make should also be considered with other factors, such as the cost of living and the benefits you receive. Look at a healthcare institution’s offerings with respect to insurance and similar incentives. You should also check about overtime pay.

You also have to consider the amount of education and experience you are bringing to the table. Naturally, if you receive an MSN or Doctoral degree in nursing, you will make more than a BSN degree.

With that said, the top salaries for NICU nurses are featured in the states of California (which pays nurses around $100,000 per year), Hawaii (which pays $97,000 annually), Massachusetts (which offers $89,000 per year), and Oregon (which offers pay of around $87,000 per year).

Neonatal Nurse Training

To work as an NICU nurse, you first need to obtain the needed training as an RN. You also have to obtain some experience in the nursing field. To become a Registered Nurse, you need to graduate from a nursing program that has been approved by your state’s nursing board. You should either obtain an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university.

Once you complete the coursework, you will sit for the exam that will give you your certification and licensure. This exam is known as an NCLEX-RN.

Obtaining the Needed Experience

To work in the neonatal field, you also need to obtain at least two years of clinical experience. You need to obtain this experience before you take the certification exam for a neonatal specialist. To ensure that you can work as a NICU nurse, you should try to gain experience in the following units in a medical center or hospital:

  • Pediatric Nursing
  • Maternal-child nursing
  • Labor and delivery
  • Healthy Baby Nursing support

While you do not necessarily need to obtain a certificate to work in the NICU, getting one will help you advance or gain the ability to apply for higher-level nursing jobs.

Certifications to Consider

You can choose from one of the various routes when you direct your interests in the neonatal nursing field. For example, you may consider obtaining a certificate in critical care neonatal nursing from the American Association of Critical Care Nursing or AACN.

This certificate is a specialty endorsement, referred to as a CCRN. By obtaining this certificate, you can use it to provide direct care to infants who are critically or acutely sick.

You can also obtain an RNC certification for Neonatal intensive care nursing. This certificate is referred to as an RNC-NIC. This certification is obtained through the National Certification Corporation, or NCC for sort. If you have worked two years in a neonatal care unit, you can apply to sit for the exam.

Other Certificates

You may also want to think about obtaining other certificates that will help you in your role as a NICU nurse. These endorsements include BLS (basic life support), ACLS (advanced cardiovascular life support), and NRP (neonatal resuscitation program) designations. You can learn more about life support requirements through organizations like the American Red Cross.

Review Your Educational Options – Online Training

If you love infants and want to be a nurse, you need to find out more about the educational opportunities featured online. Take your time to review the various programs so you can become acquainted with all the curriculums. Doing so will help you find the educational training that will support you both personally and professionally.

To learn more about becoming a neonatal nurse, you should review the programs offered by various colleges and universities. By surveying each program, you can find out what is involved in the coursework.

Make it your goal to show that you are interested in working with infants in critical care situations. That way, you will make yourself more dependable and valuable.

You are not limited in what you can do when you work at becoming a nurse. If you have always wanted to work with infants, now is your chance to do so. Whether you are a student who wishes to eventually work in the NICU section of a hospital or a nurse who would like to pursue this goal, you can make it happen.

Neonatal Nurse Qualities

To become an NICU nurse, you need to possess certain qualities, including the following:

  • An extremely caring and adaptive nature
  • Great communication skills
  • An organized mindset
  • Empathy for others

As you can see, you can take your own personal qualities and make the best use of them. You can also continue to advance your career over the passing of time. Some of the institutions that offer advanced degree programs in nursing include the following:

  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Rush University
  • Duke University
  • Vanderbilt University
  • John Hopkins University
neonatal nurse nicu

Working in the NICU Field

When you work as a NICU nurse, you will find that your role is challenging. You may be caring for a low-weight newborn or monitoring an extremely ill patient. The NICU operates 24-7. Therefore, you probably will work a 12-hour shift – one that will include weekends and evenings. You can find work in most public or large private hospitals, as they feature this type of care.

When working in this capacity, you will work with a few babies at one time. If you are working with an especially complex case, you may be given only two cases to handle. A NICU unit in a hospital is considered a level-three care unit.

Level Three Care

Level one care is directed to healthy babies, while level two care is designed for moderately serious neonatal patients. Your job in this level three unit is to care for premature babies and seriously ill patients. You also must record an infant’s progress, calm infants, administer medicine, and change diapers.

Fast-paced and Emotional

This type of environment can be fast-paced and emotional, especially if you must consult with family members, too. You also have to use the utmost care when handling your infant patients. Any small mistake can lead to a life-threatening situation. To say you have to be detailed cannot be overstated.

Obtaining the Best Jobs in the Field

If you want to obtain the best jobs in a NICU unit, you need to direct your goals toward obtaining an advanced degree, as well as the proper certifications. As noted, you will find the best opportunities in large hospitals and medical institutions that have NICU units.

A Special Member of the Healthcare Team

A NICU nurse plays a pivotal healthcare role, as she must attend to the needs of tiny newborns. She or he must ensure that a critically ill baby or premature baby gets through some health ordeals. She or he must also support the emotional needs of the family while remaining calm and professional. She or he must show patience, as care can extend for several weeks at a time.

Career Outlook for NICU Neonatal Nurses

If you are seeking a career in the nursing field that offers bright prospects, you will find them in the NICU field. Older RNs will be retiring over the next 10 years, which will open up spots for younger RNs in the NICU field.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics or BLS projects that the need for RNs will increase by 16% between the years of 2014 and 2024. If you are just now considering working as a NICU nurse, you will find that pursuing the career will reap many rewards.


You can learn more about NICU nursing by contacting an organization, such as the Academy of Neonatal Nursing. This organization offers programs and curriculums for individuals interested in taking care of newborns.

The National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN)

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses

As always, be sure to have a look around this website – we have detailed nursing career guides covering a number of specialties. And of course our main nursing salary guides – lots to learn!