The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nurse is a registered nurse with specialized training in the care of newborn babies. NICU nurses commonly are the primary caregivers to babies born prematurely and to those with diagnosed, severe health concerns prior to birth. These nurses also care for ill newborns that require hospitalization due to health problems resulting from delivery complications. NICU nurse positions generally require a registered nurse license, but individual hospitals and regions may require additional training and certifications by law or policy. These nurses typically find work in the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital.
A NICU nurse not only cares for newborns, but may also provide support, emotional and informational, to the families as well. Newborns in neonatal intensive care units need around-the-clock, extremely technical attention. Specialized feedings through intravenous methods, supplemental oxygen therapy, ventilators, incubators and other medical monitoring are often necessary. The NICU nurse helps to educate the parents and family members in the level of care the newborn is receiving, allowing for more involvement in the baby's development and bonding. They also usually instruct in the normal, day-to-day care of the delicate newborns, such as changing diapers and bathing. The NICU nurse also is often the primary person the family depends on for updates during surgeries and emergencies.
Hospitals commonly have several areas of care, sometimes referred to as levels, within a neonatal unit. Level I care normally is for babies born with no complications or health problems; these babies usually are discharged within a few days. Level II and Level III units are commonly reserved for babies in need of additional medical support and who are not ready to go home with the family. Level II and Level III units are normally combined as a hospital's neonatal areas. Both neonatal units focus on the care of the sickest babies in need of the most medical intervention.
Requirements for becoming a NICU nurse vary by region. Those pursuing neonatal nursing typically will obtain a two- or four-year registered nursing degree. A licensing exam may also be required. Some hospitals may hire a candidate straight out of school, others may ask for at least one year of experience before transferring new nurses to a neonatal unit. Although most educational institutions do not offer specific neonatal areas of study, some do offer programs as electives. After working in the field for a year or more, a nurse may consider continuing education at a higher level, obtaining an additional degree as a nurse practitioner or a neonatal nurse practitioner.