What Is a NICU Doctor?

Premature babies often need intensive care.
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A NICU is an intensive care unit for babies -- the initials stand for neonatal intensive care unit. NICU doctors are specialized pediatricians called neonatologists. About 10 to 15 percent of all newborns need NICU care, according to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, for problems ranging from prematurity to birth defects to infections. If you think you might be interested in this career, better gird up your loins for a long period of schooling, but there are also many rewards.


    Neonatologists begin their training in college, often in a pre-med track, where they study liberal arts subjects along with anatomy, biology and similar medically-oriented subjects. Then the aspiring doctor heads off to medical school for another four years. Next step -- pediatric residency, which usually lasts three years but may take four. The neonatology part of the training usually lasts at least three years in addition to the residency. All in all, a neonatologist’s education may span 15 years from the first day of college to the last day of a fellowship. Most neonatologists also become board-certified by taking first the pediatric and then the neonatology certification exams.

Working Conditions

    Like many doctors, neonatologists work long hours. During the week, they may spend blocks of time -- often a 12- or 24-hour shift -- in the NICU caring for infants. In addition, they often take calls over weekends, on holidays or at night. In some large NICUs, there is at least one neonatologist on duty and physically present in the NICU 24 hours a day. When the shifts change, the neonatologist, nurses and other members of the health care team gather for rounds to discuss what occurred with the infants in their care on the preceding shift.

Daily Duties

    As a neonatologist you will work with the tiniest of babies -- some weigh as little as 2 pounds compared to a normal birth weight of 5 pounds or more. They may have breathing problems that need oxygen, or infections that must be managed with antibiotics. Because of their size, these babies are extremely sensitive to medications and the doses must be carefully calculated to prevent an overdose. A neonatologist may need to order special treatments to help them breathe, to ensure they have the correct nutrition and to maintain body temperature.

Skills and Salaries

    Neonatologists are members of a team that includes nurses, dieticians, respiratory therapists, pharmacists and social workers. You will need to be able to communicate and collaborate with all of these people, as well as parents and other family members, so good communication skills are very important. You should enjoy learning new things, because health care is a profession in which knowledge and techniques change constantly. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not distinguish between general and specialty pediatricians such as neonatologists, pediatricians as a group earned an average annual salary of $168,650 in 2011.

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