Travel Nursing Updated October 5, 2023

By Erin Wallace, contributor

Before Becoming a NICU Nurse

If you're considering a career as a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nurse, congratulations — NICU nurses have one of the hardest jobs in medicine. A NICU nurse is a nursing specialty who cares for sick or premature babies, including babies with birth defects. While the decision to become a nurse is easy for many individuals, deciding on whether to become a neonatal nurse is a much more difficult one. Here are some things to consider before becoming a NICU nurse.

4 Things to Consider

1. You will need extensive training and education

NICU nurses need at minimum an associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing and a passing score on the NCLEX-RN exam, just as most nursing jobs require. The National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) also recommends you work for two years in a hospital with a NICU unit to gain valuable experience for the hands-on skills you need to care for infants.

You may also choose to earn your RNC-NIC Certification to further your credentials and demonstrate to employers your dedication to the field.

Dr. Janice Smolowitz, Dean of the School of Nursing at Montclair State University, and Dr. Courtney Reinisch, the Director of Undergraduate Nursing at Montclair, agree that NICU nurses need a well-rounded education. “A comprehensive education that provides a strong foundation in critical thinking, application of best evidence for practice and clinical acumen with hands-on technical ability is essential.”

2. You may experience less physical stress, but it is demanding in other ways

Some neonatal nurses report feeling less physical stress compared to other nursing specialties. Why? Some think it has to do with having to handle newborn babies, who are significantly lighter than adult patients. As a NICU nurse, you spend less time lifting and transferring patients and more time standing or sitting while holding infants. Also, NICU nurses typically have more “downtime” because sleep is such a critical component of an infant’s growth and recovery.

However, while you might experience less physical stress, being a NICU nurse tends to be emotionally demanding, especially given this population is so vulnerable. Drs. Smolowitz and Reinisch say that “being able to care and advocate for these children is essential. Having the spiritual and emotional resilience to deal with loss and support the caregiving team is paramount.”

It takes a special person to become a NICU nurse. It is ideal for nurses who have an empathetic understanding for not just newborn babies, but also for the parents and other family members.

3. A career as a NICU nurse requires excellent critical thinking skills

An infant's condition can change rapidly without warning, and this requires NICU nurses to be able to respond quickly and make difficult decisions in a short amount of time to help the patient recover. Sometimes this involves making quick mental calculations or decisions about treatment options.

Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC at, says that NICU nurses “must have the ability to critically think in urgent and emergent situations, respond quickly to changes in the infant, solve mysteries as to why problems or changes are occurring and do so in a complete fishbowl environment where anxious parents are watching [your] every move.”

NICU nurses need to be able to think quickly and accurately, be highly observant, and have the ability to work within a multidisciplinary team.

4. There are plenty of career growth opportunities

If you do pursue a career as a NICU nurse, know that career growth opportunities exist for eager NICU nurses. With some years of experience under their belts and additional certifications or education, neonatal nurses can become neonatal nurse practitioners or even grow into more administrative roles such as a NICU unit manager. reported that additional career paths for NICU nurses include NICU clinical nurse specialist, chief nursing officer, and pediatrics nurse practitioner.

Before Becoming a NICU Nurse

Watching the pain that parents must endure doesn’t get easier, but the experiences can put your own life into perspective, and you’ll learn what’s truly important in life. While the decision to become a NICU nurse ultimately depends on what kind of person you are and what you believe you can handle, many NICU nurses also report a tremendous sense of reward from their careers despite any physical or mental stressors they may face, especially when they are able to see infants who were once critically ill thrive as adults.

To learn more about what to expect as a NICU nurse, read a perspective about what NICU nurses will encounter from a clinical nurse specialist at American Family Children’s Hospital at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, Madison.

Interested in a career as a NICU nurse? Complete a quick-start application to talk to a recruiter.

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