How to Become a NICU Nurse

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Written by Ayana Dunn, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
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Reviewed by Morganne Skinner, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
NICU nurse caring for newborn

Are you drawn to pediatrics or critical care? Do you love infants? Are you interested in helping people through their first days of parenthood? If so, specializing as a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse is a great fit for you. By the way, “neonate” is Latin for “infant.” Let’s take a look at how to become a NICU nurse, the workplace environments and duties for this job, and salary outlook.

What Is a NICU Nurse?

Some newborns spend days or months in the NICU if they’re born with an infection, low birthweight, or other complications. A NICU nurse specializes in the care of newborns staying at the NICU with varying levels of acuity.

Neonatal Nurse vs. NICU Nurse

There’s a difference between a neonatal nurse and a NICU nurse. All NICU nurses are neonatal nurses, but not all neonatal nurses are NICU nurses. Both work with newborns, but NICU nurses specialize in babies needing acute medical attention requiring an intensive care unit.

For example, a neonatal nurse can be found in labor and delivery units attending to healthy babies, or babies with complications that are not deemed life threatening. NICU nurses always work with critically ill and often premature babies who need extra support while they develop enough to survive without medical intervention.

Where Do NICU Nurses Work?

These nurses primarily work in hospitals. Neonatal nurse work environments are split into four levels based on rising acuity. Each subsequent level has the capabilities of the previous levels. Labor and delivery nurses work within the first level while NICU nurses work in the second level and beyond.

Level 1: Care of newborns born full-term with no health complications

Level 2: Care of newborns born at or after 32 weeks’ gestation recovering from health complications requiring medication, feeding support, or ventilators

Level 3: Care of newborns before 32 weeks’ gestation, and babies with severe health complications requiring ventilation regardless of their gestational age

Level 4: Care of newborns born at or before 24 weeks’ gestation in need of major surgery due to a genetic or acquired condition

What Do NICU Nurses Do?

When learning about how to become a NICU nurse, it’s necessary to have an understanding of what they do on a regular day. Duties can include:

  • Changing and administering feeding tubes
  • Monitoring for changes in health status
  • Administering medication
  • Performing intubations
  • Holding and rocking babies
  • Bottle feeding
  • Changing diapers
  • Emotional support and interaction with patients
  • Support and education of families

NICU Nurse Education Requirements

One of the first steps on the path of how to become a NICU nurse is earning a BSN. This can be obtained after successfully completing a traditional four-year nursing program. The time frames may change based on whether nurses choose alternate routes, such as bridge and accelerated nursing programs. Experience in labor and delivery or general pediatrics is preferred.

NICU Nurse Certification

Nurses can get their neonatal certification from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses after they’ve completed a specific number of hours working with this population. Although a certification isn’t necessary to work as a NICU nurse, it increases your employment and salary prospects.

How Long Does It Take to Become a NICU Nurse?

It can take between four to six years to become a NICU nurse. The amount of time can vary based on your nursing school path and prior nursing experience. Some hospitals offer NICU programs to new grads, while others require at least a year of general or pediatric acute care, or labor and delivery experience.

NICU Nursing Skills

Although there is overlap between nursing skills needed in other specialties, tailoring these qualities to this unique specialty is an important part of how to become a NICU nurse. Consider highlighting these skills on your NICU nurse resume when you apply for jobs.

Empathy and compassion:

Imagine how the parents are feeling. Having a newborn admitted to a NICU is an incredibly stressful experience on top of the emotional vulnerability that accompanies new parenthood. NICU nurses are important sources of knowledge and support throughout this time.

Desire to nurture:

Unlike older patients, babies need interaction and to be held to foster healthy emotional development. This is a specialty where you must genuinely want to spend time with your patients.

Strong communication skills:

You often must explain complex medical procedures and the reasons why they’re necessary to frazzled parents. You must also employ nonverbal communication to sooth patients and facilitate healthy emotional development

Ability to remain calm and focused:

This trait is necessary to be able to work with parents, and for babies too. Infants can sense the emotions of people around them.

Knowledge of expected newborn assessment results:

Newborns aren’t simply pint-sized adults. Their anatomy, vital signs, and reflexes are unique to their age group. What’s normal for newborns isn’t the case for other developmental stages.

NICU Nurse Salary

The average NICU nurse salary is approximately $74,000 per year. This number may vary based on the state and facility in which you work and your years of experience.

Take the Next Step in Your Career

The process of how to become a NICU nurse is within reach as long as you’re willing to focus and put in the time. Need to gain more clinical experience? IntelyCare can help. Learn how flexible scheduling can make your career goals a reality.