How to Become a Neonatal Nurse

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated May 20, 2024
Edited by
This guide is for nurses who want to learn how to become a NICU nurse, where to be certified, and the job and salary outlook.
mini logo

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Featured ImageCredit: ER Productions Limited / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Neonatal nursing can be a rewarding profession for many reasons. These nurses provide care for some of the most vulnerable patients and families, have many opportunities for professional development, and work in a high-demand field with considerable job stability.

Let’s explore the steps to becoming a neonatal nurse. These healthcare professionals commonly work in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). This guide covers the education, licensure, and certification required to become a neonatal nurse.

We also explore salary and job outlook data, which are strong for this field. Read on to discover how to become a neonatal nurse.

How Long to Become

4-6 Years

Degree Required




Popular Online RN-to-BSN Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Loading...Learn More
Visit Site
Loading...Learn More
Visit Site
Loading...Learn More
Visit Site

What Is a Neonatal Nurse?

A neonatal nurse is a registered nurse (RN) who specializes in the care of newborn infants. These babies have health problems such as infections, complications from premature birth, and congenital heart defects, among others.

Neonatal nurses receive specialized training and certification. They work in neonatal areas that are typically divided into four levels.

Level I neonatal nurses care for healthy newborns. Also known as “well-baby care,” their work can include providing direct treatments, monitoring development, performing tests, and evaluating test results. They also prepare families for life after they leave the hospital.

Level II neonatal nurses can, in addition to Level I care, treat infants in special care nurseries, providing critical therapies like supplemental oxygen, IV therapy, and specialized feeding.

Level III neonatal nurses have the formal designation of “NICU nurse.” These nurses care for newborns with severe illnesses or complications. Infants sometimes require complex care, including mechanical ventilation and intricate surgery.

Finally, the Level IV NICU designation indicates the hospital has the capacity to provide surgical repair and maintains a full range of pediatric subspecialists. Nurses qualified to work in Level III nurseries can also work in Level IV NICUs.

Steps to Becoming a Neonatal Nurse

Aspiring neonatal nurses must first earn associate degrees in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degrees. Each candidate looking to become a NICU nurse must hold a valid RN license and fulfill all licensing requirements for the state where they intend to practice.

Most employers require certifications, including Neonatal Resuscitation, Basic Life Support, and, less commonly, Advanced Cardiac Life Support. Neonatal nurses may also pursue advanced degrees, including master of science in nursing (MSN) and doctor of nursing practice (DNP) programs. The MSN and DNP degrees both prepare nurses for certification as neonatal nurse practitioners.

  1. 1

    Earn an ADN or BSN Degree From an Accredited Program

    A neonatal nurse must earn an ADN or BSN from an accredited program to qualify for RN licensure in their state. An ADN program generally takes two years to complete, while BSNs take about four years.

    Because many employers prefer BSN-trained nurses, many ADN-level nurses enroll in RN-to-BSN programs. People with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees can seek accelerated BSNs in as few as 18 months.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX to Receive RN Licensure

    Each state board of nursing uses the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to validate nursing knowledge and the ability to practice safely. Candidates can take the NCLEX-RN about one month after graduating from accredited ADN and BSN programs.

  3. 3

    Gain Neonatal Nursing Experience

    New RNs can gain experience by starting in areas where they learn foundational nursing skills in pediatrics and infant care. They can also pursue certifications in neonatal resuscitation or life support. Level I nurseries can provide experience and allow them to move to more acute-care settings.

  4. 4

    Consider Becoming a Certified Neonatal Nurse

    Eligibility requirements for board certification typically include a combination of clinical experience and education. Two organizations offer certification programs for nurses who want to work with infants in a Level III or Level IV nursery — the National Certification Corporation (NCC) and the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACCN). The NCC offers the low-risk neonatal intensive care nursing credential for nurses working in Level II nurseries.

Neonatal Nurse Education

There is more than one educational path into neonatal nursing. For example, nurses can begin by earning ADN or BSNs. Neonatal nurses can also pursue graduate degrees, including MSNs and DNPs.

ADN Degree

An ADN is the minimum nursing degree needed to become a neonatal nurse. This degree suits candidates looking for quick entry into the field and opportunities for practical experience. Many employers prefer BSN-prepared nurses, and some states are making it an entry-level degree. Most employers offer encouragement and support for ADN-prepared nurses to complete BSNs.

  • Common Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED certificate, official transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, letters of recommendation, minimum 2.0 GPA, personal essay
  • Program Curriculum: Anatomy, physiology, nursing concepts, introduction to psychology, and introduction to sociology
  • Time to Complete: Two years
  • Skills Learned: Patient assessment, medication administration, communication, patient education, collaboration, and cultural competence

BSN Degree

A BSN degree is ideal for candidates who aim to advance their nursing careers. Most employers want BSN-prepared nurses, as they have a comprehensive education and a deeper understanding of nursing theory, research, and community health. The best BSN programs develop critical thinking skills, provide broader career opportunities, and qualify you for admittance to graduate degrees.

  • Common Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED certificate, minimum GPA 2.5, recommendation letters, essay, prerequisite courses including microbiology, anatomy, physiology, and chemistry
  • Program Curriculum: Leadership; pharmacology; pathophysiology; research; statistics; nursing concepts in pediatrics, adults, and geriatrics
  • Time to Complete: Four years
  • Skills Learned: Critical thinking, leadership, health promotion, community health, ethics, and evidence-based practice

MSN Degree

It is not necessary to earn an MSN degree to become a neonatal nurse, but this degree level enables nurses to practice as neonatal nurse practitioners. Nurses who want to advance their careers, increase their salary potential, and work as advanced practice registered nurses (APRN) can pursue MSNs. An MSN is the minimum degree needed to become an APRN.

  • Common Admission Requirements: ADN or a BSN, RN license, minimum 3.0 GPA, letters of recommendation, personal statement, professional experience
  • Program Curriculum: Biostatistics for evidence-based practice, advanced anatomy and physiology, clinical reasoning, advanced health assessment, pharmacology, and clinical management
  • Time to Complete: 12-22 months
  • Skills Learned: Critical thinking, advanced clinical assessment skills, confidence, collaboration, patient advocacy

DNP Degree

A DNP degree is ideal for experienced nurses seeking the highest level of clinical expertise and leadership in healthcare. A DNP is the terminal degree in nursing and allows nurses to work in advanced careers as nurse educators, APRNs, healthcare policymakers, and healthcare administrators. Nurses receive in-depth training in evidence-based practice, leadership, and quality improvement. The degree prepares graduates to address complex healthcare challenges and drive innovation in patient care.

  • Common Admission Requirements: Master’s degree, valid nursing license, minimum 3.0 GPA, professional experience, letters of recommendation, interview, personal statement
  • Program Curriculum: Health informatics, leadership and management, healthcare policy, evidence-based practice, population health
  • Time to Complete: Four years
  • Skills Learned: Analyzing and interpreting clinical outcomes, managing healthcare teams, conflict resolution, healthcare business, mentoring nurses

Neonatal Nurse Licensure and Certification

Neonatology is one of the most specialized fields in nursing. Nurses must have advanced skills to assess and treat conditions specific to some of the most vulnerable patients. Neonatal nurses must have the skills to care for newborns with infections, congenital disorders, complications from premature birth, and low birth weight.

All neonatal nurses must hold valid RN licenses to practice. They also need to complete continuing education and practice hours to renew their licenses as stipulated by state nursing board requirements.

Neonatal nurse certification can advance nurses’ careers, validate their specialized knowledge, and demonstrate a higher level of clinical competence. Employers may require neonatal nurses to hold certifications to work in NICUs, emergency rooms, and neonatal specialty units. Some states require neonatal NPs to hold certification to get licensure.

Two organizations administer neonatal certifications. The NCC certification requires an active RN license, at least 24 months of RN experience, and a passing score on the qualifying exam. Learn more about earning an RNC-NIC certification.

The AACCN offers certifications for RNs and APRNs, including the critical care RN neonatal specialty certification for nurses who provide direct care to neonatal patients with acute or chronic conditions. This credential requires each applicant to complete 1,750-2,000 hours in direct care and pass the certification exam.

Neonatal Nurse: Salary and Job Outlook

After graduating, nurses can seek positions in the field by building connections within professional organizations and clinical placements. Nurses should use career resources offered by their educational institutions, stay on top of job openings in healthcare facilities, and seek professional networking opportunities.

It’s important to keep your resume up-to-date and be well-prepared for interviews. Neonatal nurses can find employment in hospital neonatal intensive care units (NICU), labor and delivery, outpatient clinics, and home health care. These work settings offer unique opportunities for neonatal nurses to make a difference in the lives of newborns and their families.

According to ZipRecruiter, as of 2024, neonatal nurses earned an average salary of $128,211. Several factors affect compensation level, including education and experience level, certifications attained, employment setting, and location.

Neonatal nurses working in urban areas will likely earn more than nurses in rural communities. As with most RN and APRN roles, new neonatal nurses can anticipate a promising job landscape. The increased focus on preventive care for at-risk births and the expansion of neonatal intensive care units throughout the country have increased the demand for these specialized nurses.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Neonatal Nurse

The fastest way to get a job as a neonatal nurse is to earn a two-year ADN degree and gain experience in pediatrics and well-baby care. For example, some nurses may be hired for labor and delivery, where they can develop experience working with newborns.

Are You Ready to Earn Your Online Nursing Degree?

Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.