How to Become a Neonatal Nurse Specialist: Career Roadmap

Jul 09, 2020

Should I Become a Neonatal Nurse Specialist?

Neonatal clinical nurse specialists are advanced practice registered nurses (RNs) who consult and teach nurses, medical professionals and families about neonatal care. They provide direct nursing care to newborns who are born prematurely or who have an illness or medical condition that requires specialized medical care immediately after birth. These nurses may also collaborate with other healthcare professionals and be involved in clinical research.

Most neonatal nurse specialists work full-time and are employed by hospitals. Some light travel might be needed for training events. Nurses typically work irregular hours, including 12-hour, night and weekend shifts. Registered nursing jobs can be highly rewarding, especially when working with newborns. The profession is also stressful as working with babies in critical condition can be emotionally difficult.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associate's or bachelor's degree; advanced practice registered nurses need a master's degree
Degree Fields Nursing (for undergraduate studies) and clinical nursing specialist (for master's studies)
Licensure and Certification All RNs must be licensed. Certification in required for advanced practice registered nurses.
Experience 2-3 years of neonatal intensive care (NICU) experience
Key Skills Knowledge of medical database and charting software, ability to use catheters, cardiac monitors, forceps, suction kits and pacemakers, knowledge of neonatal equipment including incubators, feeding tubes, ventilators, peripheral IVs, pulse oximeters, blood pressure cuffs and scales, certified in CPR and basic advanced life support
Salary (2015) $88,121 per year (Median annual wage for neonatal nurse practitioners)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, CareerOneStop, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Job postings (August 2015),

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree in Nursing

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, RNs usually have an associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing. Neonatal nursing degree programs require applicants to have a nursing degree from an accredited nursing school. Undergraduate nursing programs generally require prerequisite courses in human anatomy, psychology and biology. Admission is typically selective and candidates should have a minimum GPA of 3.0 or higher.

Associate's degree programs provide classes covering anatomy and physiology, basic physical assessment and microbiology, while bachelor's degree courses examine topics like pharmacology, nursing practices and research. Some programs may offer neonatal nursing as an elective. Nursing students must also participate in supervised practicums as a graduation requirement.

Step 2: Obtain State License as Registered Nurse

An RN license is a requirement for admission to a neonatal nursing degree program. Most states require nurses to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to obtain licensure. Once an RN license is issued, nurses may begin employment or continue their education to specialize in a particular field.

Step 3: Fulfill Experience Requirements

An important step to becoming a neonatal clinical nurse specialist is obtaining professional, hands-on experience in neonatal care units. Schools generally prefer applicants to have at least one year of full-time nursing experience. Admissions officials also place emphasis on personal statements, recommendation letters and resumes.

Step 4: Complete an Accredited Neonatal Nurse Degree Program

A neonatal nursing or clinical nursing specialist master's degree program generally takes two years of full-time attendance to complete. Students learn the physiology, pathophysiology, assessment and diagnostics related to fetuses, newborns and infants, as well as neonatal management. These programs also include a supervised clinical experience involving parent and child nursing.

Step 5: Get Certified

Candidates for certification as a clinical nurse specialist can take the exam provided by American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). Candidates must have a valid RN license, a master's degree in nursing with a concentration as a clinical nurse specialist, 500 hours of direct neonatal , adult or pediatric clinical experience (within the master's degree program) and completion of two didactic courses in critically or acutely ill patients. The three and a half hour exam covers neonatal, adult and pediatric topics.

Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing certification is also available through the National Certification Corporation (NCC). In addition to an RN license, nurses should have 24 months of experience equaling to at least 2,000 hours of specialty experience in research, administration, patient care or education. An exam is also required.

Success Tip:

  • Maintain certification. In order to renew AACN certification, neonatal clinical nurse specialists have three options involving a combination of continuing education training, clinical experience or an exam. Renewal occurs every four years. RN licensure also has continuing education requirements that vary from state to state. Renewal for the NCC certification requires reexamination or continuing education every three years.
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