How to Become a Neonatal (NICU) Nurse

Some neonatal nurse salaries exceed $100,000 per year. Learn how to start a career in this in-demand field.
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Updated on February 10, 2023
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  • It takes 4-6 years to become a NICU nurse.
  • Neonatal nurses need a college degree and a state-issued license.
  • Certifications can help professionals qualify for more career opportunities.
  • The typical neonatal nurse practitioner salary exceeds $110,000 as of June 2022.

The nursing field features many specializations, making the career appealing to workers with different professional interests. Neonatal nurses treat one of the most vulnerable groups — infants born prematurely or with a life-threatening condition. This fulfilling career requires a college education, licensure, and certification.

The best neonatal nurses need more than extensive healthcare knowledge. They must also offer patients and their families compassion and level-headedness during an emotionally stressful time. The career also requires physical stamina and an eye for detail. The typical neonatal nurse salary exceeds the U.S. median salary significantly. This advantage lets professionals live comfortably in most parts of the country. Keep reading to learn how to become a neonatal nurse. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

What Does a Neonatal Nurse Do?

Neonatal nurses care for infants with exceptional medical needs. Like other healthcare careers, experience, certification, and additional education affect day-to-day responsibilities.

Gaining experience lets workers pursue professional certifications. Benefits may include qualifying for more jobs and keeping up to date with the latest nursing best practices.

Like a certification, an MSN with a specialization in neonatal care may qualify graduates for a career change or advancement. Neonatal nurse practitioners with this degree provide advanced care and perform other specialized roles.

Neonatal Nurse Responsibilities

  • Caring for infants who are critically ill, born prematurely or with a birth defect, or older infants who require longer term critical care
  • Collaborating with other medical professionals in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
  • Reviewing and maintaining patient paperwork
  • Communicating medical information to family members and other stakeholders

Neonatal Nurse Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

Related Nursing Programs for You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

How to Become a NICU Nurse

Becoming a neonatal nurse license begins with education. Aspiring neonatal nurses should earn a bachelor's to make themselves more competitive. Other steps include passing the NCLEX-RN, applying for a license, and working in a hospital's NICU.

Licensed nurses use their education and training to qualify for a professional certification. Certification may result in a higher neonatal nursing salary and more career paths.

Step 1: Earn a BSN

A bachelor's in nursing features the education and hands-on training states require for licensure. Typical classes in a four-year program include human physiology, clinical pharmacology, and mental health nursing. Students also take general education classes emphasizing transferable skills.

Prospective students unsure about their career path should consider earning an associate in a science-related subject before transferring. They can speak with an academic counselor to choose the right major.

In addition, consider affordability when comparing ADN, RN-to-BSN, and BSN programs. In-state public schools may offer the lowest tuition rates.

Degree-seekers can make the most of their education by speaking with their school's career counselors. These professionals help learners prepare for interviews and develop a resume.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX Exam

States' licensure requirements include passing the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) NCLEX-RN exam. Licensure candidates take this exam at a Pearson VUE testing center. The NCLEX-RN costs $200 as of August 2022.

The NCLEX-RN uses a computer-adaptive format, meaning the number of questions varies by test-taker. They answer 75-145 questions over a maximum five-hour testing window. The NCSBN uses a passing standard formula rather than a traditional score cutoff.

Visit the NCSBN website to access exam-preparation materials, such as a free practice test.

Step 3: Obtain RN Licensure

Aspiring nurses who pass the NCLEX-RN exam can start the licensure application process. Requirements vary by state but include official transcripts, exam scores, and a criminal background check.

Licensure applicants pay a fee when they submit their application. Individuals in Delaware pay $170 as of April 2022. California charges $300.

Licensed nurses also pay for continuing education classes necessary for licensure renewal. States charge renewal fees, as well.

Step 4: Work in a Neonatal Setting

Newly licensed nurses gain neonatal nursing experience by working in their hospital's NICU. Many professionals spend 1-2 years in an entry-level role before pursuing certification.

July 2022 Payscale data reports that entry-level nurses made almost $28 per hour. Students approaching graduation may find a better-paying position by developing their interviewing skills and working with their school's career counselors. Recent graduates can get their first job by custom-tailoring their resume and cover letter for each position.

Step 5: Apply for Certification

Nursing organizations that include the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) award certification to experienced neonatal nurses. Professionals with 2-5 years of experience may qualify for the CCRN (neonatal) certification.

Earning the CCRN (neonatal) involves passing a comprehensive exam. Question topics cover six core areas, such as body systems and typical medical conditions. AACN members receive a $115 certification discount as of August 2022.

The National Certification Corporation awards the RNC certification for neonatal intensive care nursing to nurses who hold at least two years of experience and pass an exam. The exam costs $325 as of August 2022.

What to Know Before Becoming a Neonatal Nurse


Prospective students limit their school search by checking schools' accreditation status. The benefits of attending an accredited school include transferring credit, accessing federal financial aid programs, and qualifying for more educational opportunities. Avoid schools lacking accreditation.

Online programs need the same accreditation as on-campus programs. Check accreditation status on a school's consumer information page.


According to a BestColleges data report, tuition and fees at four-year schools cost an average of $19,020 per year in 2020-2021. Many learners must also pay hidden college costs, such as travel and housing. Students may save money by attending a public or online school.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduate tuition and fees in 2020-2021 cost $19,749 per year. Learners pursuing a master's degree may save money by comparing on-campus and online program costs.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that registered nurses earned a median salary of $77,600 per year in May 2021. Top-paying employers included government agencies, hospitals, and ambulatory healthcare services. California nurses made the highest median salaries in the nation, at $124,000 per year.

Professionals may increase their salary potential with a graduate degree. Nurse practitioners with a master's or doctorate earned a median salary of $120,680 per year in May 2021.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Neonatal Nurse

What qualifications do you need to become a neonatal nurse?

Neonatal nurses need an associate or bachelor's degree from a state-approved nursing school. Both degrees require rigorous coursework and supervised clinical experience. Nurses-in-training qualify for a state license by passing the NCLEX-RN exam and meeting other requirements.

Newly licensed nurses enter the neonatal nursing field by gaining experience and professional certifications. They work under experienced nurses in their hospital's NICU before pursuing certification.

People interested in how to become a neonatal nurse should explore ADN and BSN programs in their area. These programs' in-person coursework and hands-on training let workers explore neonatal nursing and other specialties.

What is the fastest way to become a neonatal nurse?

Some nursing programs awarding an ADN take only two years to complete. However, some hospitals may prefer applicants with a bachelor's degree. Degree-seekers spend their 2-4 years in school learning nursing fundamentals, such as anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and psychology.

New nurses spend about two years gaining experience in neonatal nursing. Working under experienced neonatal nurses lets them develop knowledge and skills related to general pediatrics and maternal-child nursing. Professionals then earn one or more neonatal nursing certifications.

Some aspiring neonatal nurses need more than 4-6 years to achieve their career goals. Neonatal nurse practitioners must hold a master's degree. A typical master's program takes full-time learners an extra two years to finish.

How do I become a neonatal nurse without a degree?

People researching how to become a licensed neonatal nurse will discover the profession requires at least an associate degree. States regulate the nursing profession with this and other requirements. Visit a state's board of licensure website to learn more about the process.

Although registered nurses hold a degree, other nursing professionals do not. These licensed professional nurses (LPNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) need only a diploma to practice. Diploma programs take less time than an associate or bachelor's degree.

Becoming an LPN or LVN lets workers explore the nursing profession without committing to a degree. Their diploma may transfer to an ADN program, as well.

Can I become a neonatal nurse with an online degree?

Aspiring neonatal nurses without college experience may enroll in a hybrid program. Hybrid programs combine the hands-on experiences states require for licensure and some online coursework. As a result, college applicants should apply to hybrid programs within commuting distance.

RNs with an associate degree may explore fully online RN-to-BSN programs. These degrees let learners continue working while in school. Other advantages may include the ability to study full or part time.

Experienced nurses with a bachelor's can select from online MSN and DNP neonatal nursing programs. These programs feature the same advantages as online RN-to-BSN degrees.

How much money does a neonatal nurse make?

As of June 2022 Payscale data, neonatal nurses earn over $20,000 more annually than the typical U.S. worker. Some professionals make more than $100,000 per year.

Many factors affect salary, such as degree level. Payscale reports that the average neonatal nurse practitioner salary exceeds $110,000 as of June 2022. This salary potential may make earning an MSN or DNP degree a wise investment for some experienced nurses.

Where nurses live may also impact their salary. The BLS reports that registered nurses in California, Hawaii, and Oregon made at least $20,000 more per year than the profession's median salary in May 2021. Other top-paying locations included Washington, D.C. and Alaska. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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