How to Become a Neonatal (NICU) Nurse

Some neonatal nurse salaries exceed $100,000 per year. Learn how to become a NICU nurse.
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Updated on June 5, 2024
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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 $115,000 as of June 2024.

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. You 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.

Keep reading to learn how to become a NICU nurse.

How to Become a NICU Nurse

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

After you become licensed, you can use your education and training to qualify for a professional certification. Certification may result in a higher 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. You also take general education classes emphasizing transferable skills.

If you're unsure about your career path, consider earning an associate in a science-related subject before transferring. You 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.

You can make the most of your education by speaking with your school's career counselors. These professionals help you 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. You can take this exam at a Pearson VUE testing center. The NCLEX-RN costs $200 as of June 2024.

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

After passing the NCLEX-RN exam, you can start the licensure application process. Requirements vary by state but include official transcripts, exam scores, and a criminal background check.

You pay a fee when you submit your application. Individuals in Delaware pay $170 as of June 2024. California charges $300.

You are also expected to pay for continuing education classes necessary for licensure renewal. States charge renewal fees, as well.

Step 4: Work in a Neonatal Setting

With your new license, you can now gain neonatal nursing experience by working in your hospital's NICU. You can expect to spend 1-2 years in an entry-level role before pursuing certification.

June 2024 Payscale data reports that entry-level nurses made about $34 per hour. When applying for your first job, be sure to custom-tailor your resume and cover letter to 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 June 2024.

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 June 2024.

Related Nursing Programs for You

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

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 you 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 you 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.

What to Know Before Becoming a Neonatal Nurse


When researching programs, be sure to check each of your prospective 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, the average total cost of a master's degree is about $35,700 per year. You must also anticipate 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 2021-2022 cost $20,513 per year. Careful research is crucial when choosing a graduate program. Comparing on-campus and online program costs can help you save money.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that registered nurses earned a median salary of $86,070 per year in May 2023. Top-paying employers included government agencies, hospitals, and ambulatory healthcare services. California nurses made the highest median salaries in the nation, at $137,690 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 $126,260 per year in May 2023.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Neonatal Nurse

What qualifications do you need to become a neonatal nurse?

To become a neonatal nurse, you need an associate or bachelor's degree from a state-approved nursing school. Both degrees require rigorous coursework and supervised clinical experience. Once you begin training, you can qualify for a state license by passing the NCLEX-RN exam and meeting other requirements.

Once licensed, you can enter the neonatal nursing field by gaining experience and professional certifications. You can expect to work under experienced nurses in your hospital's NICU before pursuing certification.

If you're interested in how to become a neonatal nurse, consider exploring ADN and BSN programs in your area. These programs' in-person coursework and hands-on training let you 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. You spend your 2-4 years in school learning nursing fundamentals, such as anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and psychology.

As a new nurse, you 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. You can then earn one or more neonatal nursing certifications.

If your goal is work as a neonatal nurse practitioner, it may take more than 4-6 years to achieve your 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.

Can I become a neonatal nurse without a degree?

No, the profession requires at least an associate degree. And if you want to work as a neonatal nurse practitioner, you'll need a master's 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.

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, you should apply to hybrid programs within commuting distance.

RNs with an associate degree may explore fully online RN-to-BSN programs. These degrees let you 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 February 2024 Payscale data, neonatal nurses earn an average salary of about $78,000, which is about $30,000 more than the typical U.S. worker earns annually ($48,060). 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 $117,000 as of March 2024. This salary potential may make earning an MSN or DNP degree a wise investment for some experienced nurses.

Where you live may also impact your 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 2023. 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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