NICU Meaning and Registered Nurse Salary for this Specialty

NICU nurse at the bedside of a neonatal patient delivering care
Written by
Crystal Shoaie
October 16, 2023

In the neonatal intensive care unit, the NICU nurse is the guardian of newborn infants with critical health conditions, wielding their expertise and tender care to ensure these tiny lives fare well. Beyond the knowledge, skills, monitors, and medical equipment, the unwavering commitment, heartfelt empathy, and composure of these nurses truly distinguish their role in championing the resilience of these little troopers.

What Is Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Nursing?

NICU nurses work in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), which is an intensive care unit specializing in ill or premature newborn infants. NICU nurses are skilled registered nurses (RNs) or nurse practitioners (NPs) with expertise in caring for neonatal patients, often obtaining certifications related to this practice area.

The NICU has a section for critical care dedicated to monitoring and treating high-risk babies closely, an intermediate area for stable infants still requiring specialized attention, and a step-down unit where babies ready for discharge receive additional care before leaving the hospital or being transferred to another floor.

Compassion plays a vital part in the role of a NICU nurse. These tiny patients require extraordinarily gentle and sensitive support, and the frightened and worried parents and families also need comfort. The emotional challenges associated with neonatal intensive care nursing call for the capacity to maintain stable composure and effectively manage the stress inherent to the job.

NICU nurse working alongside the incubator of a baby
NICU nurses are a special part of a hospital team.

What Do You See inside the NICU?

Walking into a NICU, you will hear alarms beeping, babies crying, ventilators binging, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) circuits cutting out, and as you look around this orchestrated chaos, you see a specialized nursery equipped with cutting-edge medical technology, staffed by a dedicated and highly trained team of doctors and nurses who care for the most fragile of newborns. 

You also see many specialized devices that help the tiny patients survive, including the following:

  • Infant warmers, small beds with heaters over them and equipped with monitors
  • Incubators enclosed with hard, clear plastic 
  • Phototherapy equipment with lights, particularly for newborn jaundice
  • Oscillators with tubes connected to the baby to deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide
  • IV lines and an array of specialized devices to detect apnea, measure blood pressure, and administer sustenance and medication

Amid the bustling activity and the advanced medical interventions, an overwhelming sense of compassion, expertise, and determination permeates the NICU. In this place, hope, resilience, tears, and joy coexist.

Example NICU Nurse Job Description

The following is an example job description of a certified neonatal intensive care nurse: The candidate works collaboratively with patients and the healthcare team, delivering timely and effective care and applying sound clinical knowledge even in emergencies.

Key Knowledge and Skills

The following are essential knowledge and skills that NICU nurses need:

  • Maintain clear, honest, and considerate communication with the patients’ families and the healthcare team.
  • Maintain a sterile environment.
  • Make prompt, patient-centered decisions.
  • Have a competent understanding of the physiological and psychological aspects of neonatal care.
  • Be proficient in medical equipment operation.


Aspiring NICU nurses should meet the following qualifications:

  • Hold a valid registered nursing license.
  • Have clinical knowledge and experience in operations and patient communication.

Job Duties of a NICU Nurse

Here are typical responsibilities of nurses providing neonatal intensive care:

  • Provide appropriate care to newborns in different stages (high-risk, stable, or ready for discharge): 
  • Operating specialized equipment
  • Assisting in high-risk deliveries and emergencies in labor and delivery (L&D) units
  • Managing conditions such as congenital problems and premature births
  • Offer extensive care for newborns needing immediate nursing attention:
  • Holding, rocking, feeding, and changing diapers
  • Changing feeding tubes, monitoring devices, administering medication, and performing intubations
  • Conducting vital sign assessments, fluid monitoring, and waste output tracking
  • Administering medications, IV fluids, and blood transfusions
  • Performing hearing and vision tests
  • Maintain and update patient records.
  • Establish a strong sense of responsibility for the infants’ well-being.
  • Collaborate with parents, providing detailed updates on the child’s condition.
  • Educate parents on post-discharge home care.

As a neonatal intensive care nurse, you will play a pivotal role in the healthcare team, taking a genuine interest in newborns with serious health issues ranging from prematurity to congenital disorders, infection, cardiac malformations, and surgical problems. You will provide compassionate and expert care to a hospital’s youngest patients and support their families throughout the journey.

How Can I Become a NICU Nurse? 

To become a NICU nurse, you must complete an RN nursing program, procure the license, acquire experience in the area, and seek certifications relevant to neonatal and/or intensive care nursing. To see the skills and formal education required to be a NICU nurse and work in this demanding and tender environment, read Neonatal Nursing: The Ultimate Guide.

How Much Does Nursing School Cost?

The yearly cost of in-person four-year nursing programs ranges from an average of $9,375 for in-state tuition at public schools to an all-school average of $16,620, not including living expenses. However, some accredited and respected online programs offer significantly less expensive options, ranging from around $4,500 to $10,700.

A student may seek scholarships, fellowships, or loans to cover the cost of nursing school. The American Association of Colleges and Nursing lists financial aid resources for nursing students.

mother holding a premature baby
NICU nurses help mothers and premature babies form bonds.

How Much Experience Is Required to Become a NICU Nurse? 

Most institutions require at least one year of experience in pediatrics, emergency care, or, better yet, in the intensive care unit (ICU) or NICU. 

What’s the Average NICU Nurse Salary?

As of May 2022, the average salary for RNs is $89,010 per year. NICU RNs earn about 6 percent more than their counterparts. However, this varies significantly by location, level of education, and work setting. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the highest-paying states for RNs are California, Hawaii, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Alaska, all paying over $100,000. 

How to Find NICU Nurse Jobs near Me

Here is where Nursa comes in to help you browse available shifts, apply for the shifts that fit your interests and needs, and get started caring for those tiniest and most vulnerable patients.

Find the Right Shifts for You: Sign Up with Nursa

Crystal Shoaie
Blog published on:
October 16, 2023

Meet Crystal, a contributing copywriter for Nursa who specializes in writing topics that help nursing professionals navigate the world of finances, education, licensing, compliance, equality, and ideal locations for per diem jobs.

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