Understanding the role of a NICU nurse - Part 2

October 1, 2014

Education & training

Nursing a new born on the maternity ward! A NICU nurse is essentially an RN who has specialised in neonatal intensive care. To be an RN you need to have a college degree. While you may find work as a staff NICU RN with a two-year associate’s degree, most employers prefer to hire nurses who have a four-year bachelor’s degree as the job involves working in a highly specialised environment. 

Before you obtain qualification to work in a neonatal intensive care unit, you will need to have gained some training and experience in a general paediatrics area. Added experience in other ICU settings can give you a huge advantage when it comes to employability.


Training for NICU nurses is often provided on the job, with six to eight weeks as a typical training duration. Some establishments may be partial to hiring new nursing graduates (especially those who have a bachelor’s degree) and in that case, training may take three months or so. Registered nurses with ample NICU experience usually train NICU RNs who are new on the job.

After successfully completing a nursing educational program, nurses need to pass a licensing exam to get a registered nursing licence. An RN licence is necessary prior to starting work.


Essential skills and attributes

The NICU can be a very stressful environment where infants’ lives are in your hands. This is not a job for the faint hearted. Some of the qualities and skills you must possess as a NICU nurse include:

  • Pay careful attention to detail. Accurate, precise documentation is a major part of your responsibilities so that whoever takes over knows how the patient has progressed and exactly what needs to be done.
  • Be a quick, analytical thinker. As a NICU nurse you should be able to deal effectively with emergencies and make appropriate treatment decisions no matter what the emergency. 
  • Have well developed stress management skills. NICU work is not just physically demanding, it can also be tough on the psyche, especially when you have to deal with a patient’s death, a poor prognosis, or cases of abuse or neglect. 
  • Be flexible. Your patient caseload may change from one day to the next. 
  • Be a skilled communicator and educator. These qualities will come into play when teaching families how to care for an ill infant.


Advancement opportunities

After gaining substantial experience in NICU nursing, you would have the opportunity to become a charge nurse or a supervisor. With additional education you could even move on to specialty nursing roles within the NICU such as advanced practice nursing careers or discharge planners.

Advanced practice registered nurses APRNs who specialise in NICU nursing may choose to further sub-specialise in a specific type of neonatal care such as prematurity, respiratory illnesses or cardiology. APRNs also have the option of taking their NICU experience with them and go into consulting, research, education or healthcare administration.