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What is a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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The neonatal nurse practitioner is a nurse practitioner who has specially trained to care for critically ill or premature infants in major hospitals that have neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). Programs to train for this specialty, which requires a master’s degree and two to three years of study after becoming a registered nurse, are often located near major hospitals so that much continued care of patients is included in training. Some practitioners who work in NICUs might have training instead in acute care pediatric nursing, and work with patients of all ages that are in intensive care or acute care units.

There are different ways in which these nurses may work. They frequently report directly to a neonatologist or to other specialists who may be handling the care of very ill infants. They often have a caseload of patients that they oversee, and they may have more direct contact with parents, especially in large, extremely busy tertiary hospitals. Unlike registered nurses, who are usually not allowed to make that many medical decisions without a doctor’s orders, the neonatal nurse practitioner can give orders and make decisions about types of care to pursue based on urgent or emergency need. The degree to which practitioners review orders with overseeing physicians can vary from facility to facility.

Coming to this profession from a nursing perspective make the neonatal nurse practitioner quite unique from doctors. Many masters’ programs require some years’ experience in neonatal nursing, and this means practitioners may have spent significant time not just caring for their tiny patients but also helping families understand what is happening. Neonatal nurses do much to help moms and dads cope with having very ill children. This experience often translates well if a nurse becomes a neonatal nurse practitioner. There may be more sense of including the family in the process, of carefully explaining diagnosis, and of listening to family concerns.

Many families who have had experience with these nurse specialists find they are an extremely helpful addition to medical teams, and may particularly help with answering questions. Depending on the number of nurse practitioners employed, they may also prove helpful because they can be more available. While parents might see a neonatologist once daily, they may see the nurse practitioner several times a day.

Those interested in training to be a neonatal nurse practitioner can find many nursing and/or medical schools that offer this training. Though requirements may differ, most will need to enter programs as a registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree. After completing programs, which may take two to three years, nurses often need to take examinations to be certified as practitioners. Many hospitals that employ neonatal nurses have programs for nurse practitioner training, and may guarantee employment as a practitioner once training is complete.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon144746 — On Jan 20, 2011

Plaid: Begin in college. I want to be a neonatal nurse so badly I can't stand it. Even in stressful times, it's all worth the helping the families.

By plaid — On Sep 03, 2010

@ChickenLover - Wow, that's kind of a lot to take in and you're right that I haven't really thought about the risks or the down side to working in that field. I know there is also a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner Certification and a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner Exam I would need to look into, but I think it would be worth it. I'm sure that there are classes included in the curriculum that teach you how to deal with stressful social situations and life threatening ones as well. Thanks for the help!

By ChickenLover — On Sep 03, 2010

@plaid - A lot of people have decided to go back to school lately which I think might be a good option for you; especially if you've been considering this type of work for a while now. There are online Neonatal Nurse Practitioner programs available through various colleges that operate solely online. You should definitely go through some reviews of students, however, as there have also (unfortunately) been some problems with online colleges lately as well.

Neonatal Nurse Practitioner salaries are considerable, but just know that if something happens to that baby you could catch the flack. It's a very stressful, demanding job and it requires a very strong person; not just anyone will do.

By plaid — On Sep 03, 2010

Being a Neonatal Nurse is one of those careers that can fall on either side of the spectrum of life. Of course, with any career you will have good days and bad days, so... I have been thinking about working with children and newborns in particular, but I don't know where to begin...?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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