What Do NICU Nurses Do?

Posted by Shanna Shafer on Feb 5, 2015 2:17:43 PM

What Do NICU Nurses Do?




When babies are born prematurely or with serious health problems, they need specialized care from highly-trained healthcare personnel, including nurses, advanced nurse practitioners and doctors. This care is provided in specialized facilities that have Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs). NICU nurses work with the most fragile infants, helping them adjust to life outside the womb, caring for their underdeveloped and often precariously weak bodies and helping to prevent life-threatening infections and/or illnesses that may result from early or complicated births. If you want to work with babies and provide support to families during hard times, you may want to consider a career in NICU nursing.

Roles of the NICU Nurse

NICU nurses play an extremely important role in providing high quality nursing care for sick infants. NICU nurseries are staffed around-the-clock by NICU nurses, making them some of the most important people in a growing baby's life. They serve in a medical role by providing life saving health care services, but they also provide nurturing and comfort to babies who may have to be away from their parents much of the time. NICU nurses may also take on support roles for families of admitted babies by helping them understand their baby's condition and giving them the information they need to safely interact with their child. Your role as a patient advocate is essential, and you may find that it can be both extremely challenging and highly rewarding to work with families, caregivers and infants in this setting.

Responsibilities and Demands of the Job

When you work in the NICU, you may work a variety of shifts. Shifts are often assigned on a rotating basis so that you can acclimate to the job duties of different shifts, learning all aspects of caring for these delicate, yet high demand patients. Throughout the course of your day, you may perform routing nursing duties such as obtaining babies' measurements and growth rates, completing documentation, carrying out doctors' orders, and administering a host of different medications through various routes.

NICU nurses also pay attention to a NICU baby's immediate and highly variable needs to ensure that their condition is kept stable and safe. You will likely face life threatening situations, in which you must provide prompt, safe, sterile care for your patients. In this position, you will perform frequent patient examinations, due to the instability and acuity of your patients. You will also be the primary caregiver for your patients each day, and your assessments and interventions will be crucial to developing patient care plans alongside doctors and nurse practitioners.

Of of the most difficult demands you may have to face as a NICU nurse comes with helping families and other caregivers to deal with the loss of a newborn. Due to the extremely fragile nature of the babies you will be working with, you can expect that some outcomes may not be ideal. Your role as a source of comfort, support and healing for grieving parents, siblings, and even co-workers may be one of the hardest and, yet, most important aspects of being a good NICU nurse.


NICU nurses are expected to be skilled in all aspects of neonatal and newborn care, making this one of the most intensely challenging and rewarding specialties in nursing. You may develop specialized experience working with a particular type of infant, such as infants with developmental disabilities, with addiction issues, or with extreme prematurity. In addition, once you get into a position, you may attend seminars with different focuses in NICU nursing, earning specialty training in different aspects of NICU nursing.

As you progress in your career as a NICU nurse, you may find that you want to continue your education and specialize in an advanced nursing specialty within the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. You may decide to pursue your neonatal nurse practitioner degree, become a clinical nurse specialist or move into management in the NICU.


To work in this field of nursing, you have to meet several different requirements. First, you will likely need a Bachelor's degree in nursing and advanced training in the care of newborns and intensive care to secure a position as a NICU nurse. You must, of course, also have a valid and unencumbered nursing license in the  state in which you plan to practice. You will also need to undergo training in Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support, and may be required to complete inservices and training on the many delicate procedures and highly technical aspects you will encounter in the NICU.


NICU nursing is one field that does usually require a Bachelor's degree, as opposed to an Associate's degree, in nursing. A BSN program typically offers clinical experience in both the Intensive Care Unit and the NICU, preparing you for this career path better than an ADN program may. You may also be required to complete yearly competencies and educational programs as a condition of your employment, a the discretion of the facility you work in and the providers you work alongside.

Licensing and Certification

You must maintain your RN license throughout your career. Many employers also require you to complete continuing education credits that specifically relate to your career in the NICU. These credits may meet the CEU requirements of your state. Again, ACLS and PALS certification will be required as well, and must be kept up to date and renewed as dictated by your facility.

Salary Range

When you become a NICU nurse, you may earn a number of different salaries, depending upon your previous experience and place of employment. Download a copy of our free Nurse Salary Guide to learn more about the salary range for this and other nursing careers.

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Job Outlook for 2014 and Beyond

You may anticipate a fairly positive job outlook through 2022. During this time period, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects job openings for registered nurses to increase by 19%. 

Career Path

To get started on this career path, you should get experience working in a pediatric unit, nursery, emergency or intensive care unit before getting specialized training in NICU nursing. Many NICU wards, particularly Level 2 and Level 3 units, require prior nursing experience for new hires. If this is a career path that you know you want to follow early on in your nursing career, getting the right experience is your best move toward reaching your goal of working in the NICU.

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Topics: Career in Nursing