Neonatal Nursing Schools and Programs

ASO Staff Writers
Updated November 30, 2023
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Using Higher Education and Critical Skills to Help Infants Thrive

Neonatal nurses play a critical role in caring for infants who have a variety of conditions, including prematurity, birth defects, surgical problems, infection and cardiac malformations. Aspiring neonatal nurses can obtain advanced degrees and certifications to set themselves apart from other applicants.

This page outlines the educational paths available to aspiring neonatal nurses, as well as licensing and certification information.

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Top Neonatal Programs

Students who have completed a bachelor’s degree in nursing have a number of opportunities to pursue post-graduation, but one of the most fulfilling nursing specializations available is in neonatal care. Graduate students may pursue up to a doctorate level degree in neonatal nursing, developing their skills in caring for infants suffering from conditions like premature birth, infections, or surgical issues. We’ve combed through the schools offering these programs throughout the country and found those that are the most affordable and offer the most beneficial programs. Explore the best neonatal nursing schools and programs here.

University of Rochester
LocationRochester, NY
Duke University
LocationDurham, NC
University of Pennsylvania
LocationPhiladelphia, PA
Regis University
LocationDenver, CO
Case Western Reserve University
LocationCleveland, OH
Baylor University
LocationWaco, TX
Loma Linda University
LocationLoma Linda, CA
University of Cincinnati
LocationCincinnati, OH
University of Washington
LocationSeattle, WA

Educational Road Map for Neonatal Nurses

Earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelors of science in nursing (BSN).

Take elective courses in neonatal nursing while in school.

Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

Begin working as a registered nurse and gain several years of experience working with neonatal patients.

Earn an advanced degree in neonatal nursing (optional).

Take the critical care nursing certification exam through the American Association of Critical Care Nursing.

From RN to Neonatal Nurse: Transferable Skills

An RN license affords aspiring neonatal nurses the skills needed to work with vulnerable newborns. RNs perform a variety of duties, including taking patients’ histories, administering medications, checking patients’ vitals and educating patients on health and wellness. While the duties may vary slightly at each hospital or clinic, the overall care tasks are the same.



Neonatal nursing application
Neonatal nurses can focus on critical decision-making, working closely with other leaders in settings including hospitals and clinics and advocating for families.



Neonatal nursing application
Newborns in need of neonatal care are some of the most vulnerable patients and often suffer from a host of medical issues, including low birth weight and weak heart rate. Regularly monitoring a newborn’s vital signs will ensure the newborn gets the treatment he or she needs.



Neonatal nursing application
RNs can assess pain in patients by asking them to rate their pain on a scale of one to 10. Neonatal nurses have to take their assessment a step further by judging a newborn’s facial expressions and vocalizations, such as crying or screaming, or watching for an elevated pulse or heartbeat.



Neonatal nursing application
Just as adults can need resuscitation if breathing stops, some newborns can need the same life-saving measures. Preterm babies have immature lungs that may be more difficult to ventilate and more prone to injury, so neonatal nurses must take extra caution.

Starting the Path: Neonatal Nursing Programs by Level

Students must earn a registered nursing credential before becoming a neonatal nurse. There are several paths from which to choose, including associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees and doctorate degrees in nursing. Upon completion of the associate degree, graduates can work as RNs and begin training for a career in neonatal nursing. Competition for jobs is tough, and many employees seek applicants who have earned a higher level of education. Below you’ll find an overview of the several educational options, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to determine the right path for you.


The associate degree in nursing typically takes two years to complete and can serve as a stepping stone to a career as a neonatal nurse. Admission to ADN programs vary by school but usually includes completion of a high school diploma, plus drug screening and a criminal background check for felony convictions or other issues that would preclude a candidate from acceptance into a program. Many programs require applicants to pass a health screening test before acceptance. Upon completion of the degree and becoming licensed, aspiring neonatal nurses can work as registered nurses and begin training for neonatal, maternity or other opportunities that lead to work as a neonatal nurse.

For more information on the 2-year degree, visit our detailed page on the associate degree in nursing.

Curriculum Overview: ADN
Associate-level education involves classroom instruction and clinical training which offer foundations for more advanced courses and include the fundamentals of nursing and caring for the very young to the elderly, maternal newborn nursing, pediatric nursing and the basics of pharmacology.


A bachelor of science in nursing builds on associate-level coursework and provides a more in-depth concentration with greater focus on advanced skills and knowledge. The BSN helps prepare students for careers in health care settings such as hospitals, clinics and private practices, and neonatal candidates can tailor their courses to include a focus on pediatric and infant care. A BSN can usually be completed while you are working as a nurse, which means you will be able to further your career without taking time off. With the current nursing shortage in the U.S., BSNs are in high demand and can earn greater salaries than nurses with an associate degree.

For more information on the four-year degree, visit our detailed page on the bachelor of science degree in nursing.

Curriculum Overview: BSN
Students can expect to learn research methods used in health care settings and how to include the findings into their clinical work; the foundations of genetics and genomics, including environmental influences that might change them and the legal, moral and ethical situations that may arise; maternal fetal nursing and basic health care issues for mothers and newborns and leadership and management in nursing.


For anyone seeking career advancement and higher earning potential in the infant care specialty, pursuing a master of science in nursing degree (MSN) with a concentration in neonatal nursing is the next step. Aspiring neonatal advanced practice nurses must complete either a master’s degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree in Neonatal Nursing. An MSN program typically takes two years to complete, but some programs will want a certain amount of work experience before admitting students. Requirements generally include a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), a registered nurse (RN) license, minimum GPA and GRE scores depending on the program and clinical experience.

For more information, visit our detailed page on the master of science degree in nursing.

Curriculum Overview: MSN
The master’s curriculum for a neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP) includes neonatal health assessment, during which the student focuses on how to perform an accurate gestational age and health assessment, including the collection of data and identification of potentially necessary diagnostic tests; neonatal physiology, which includes an in-depth study of human genetics and development of the body’s systems, with studies from the embryonic stage to the neonate; advanced neonatal pharmaceuticals, during which the student learns about drugs and drug interactions, correct dosages and pharmaceutical interventions and the essential components of the NICU, including essential skills, resuscitation, assessment and lab analysis. Other courses could include nursing management, neonatal clinical practicum and physiology for the advance practice.


Students who have a master’s degree and who have worked in the nursing field may want to further advance their career with a doctor of nursing with a specialization in neonatal care. According to current standards, nurses who want to become advanced practice RNs need to complete only a master’s degree program; however, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing has recommended students who want to practice advanced nursing earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). The DNP with the Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP) specialty prepares nurses for advanced practice, as well as higher potential salary earnings.

A doctorate program in nursing is best for students who have already earned a master’s degree and have several years of experience in a neonatal unit. Those who want to work as hands-on neonatal nurses can earn the DNP or the DN with an emphasis on neonatal care.

Curriculum Overview: DNP for Neonatal Nurse Practitioners
Upon completion of the degree, students will have learned to assess research and translate findings into action; tuned collaborative skills that will enable them to work with those in the highest levels of research and administration; gained a deep knowledge of research and the methods behind it, allowing them to work with research teams on new techniques, medications and practices that benefit children in NICUs; developed the ability to spot issues in the health care system and have the knowledge needed to implement change and learned the skills to teach others how to incorporate advances in health care as they become available.

The following is a sampling of the course work that can be found in doctorate degree programs for neonatal nurse practitioners.

Course NameOverview
Human EmbryologyThis course is designed to provide the student with a basic knowledge of the principles of neonatal embryology, and an understanding of the basis for congenital malformations in the high-risk neonate.
Advanced Neonatal PharmacologyProvides a basis for understanding the pharmacokinetics and actions of specific groups of drugs commonly used in neonatal advanced nursing practice. Emphasis is placed on pharmacological action of drugs, side effects, appropriate dosing, monitoring, drug interactions and guidelines for use of drugs. Legal and ethical considerations of prescriptive practice are also addressed.
Advanced Neonatal AssessmentThis course incorporates knowledge of neonatal physiology and pathophysiology to expand the assessment skills of advanced practice nursing students. The course includes perinatal history taking, physical assessment and examination techniques, gestational age assessment, APGAR scoring, developmental and behavioral assessment, and cultural/social family evaluation.
Management of High Risk Neonate IThis course provides the student with didactic content in common high risk maternal/fetal conditions, neonatal cardiovascular, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, hematological, neurological, dermatological and infectious disorders. Content includes the management of the more common high risk conditions.
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner ResidencyThe purpose of the NNP Residency is to provide students with learning opportunities that facilitate continued development in the Neonatal Nurse Practitioner role. Students will work with preceptors in a variety of clinical settings to advance the knowledge and skills acquired in previous didactic and clinical coursework. This course provides the student with an immersion into the Neonatal Nurse Practitioner (NNP) role that allows development of increased skill and independence in decision-making as a NNP. Students are expected to identify, interpret, and apply current evidence to their practice and clinical decision making.

Certification: The Last Step to Becoming a Neonatal Nurse

Candidates must pass the state licensing requirement and work for several years in the nursing field with neonatal patients before applying to take the certification exam for neonatal nursing. The American Association of Critical Care Nurses is the certifying body. Certifications must be renewed every five years.

Certified Neonatal Nursing Requirements

  • Pass a criminal background check.
  • Earn your ASN or MSN from an accredited school of nursing.
  • Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).
  • Complete your state’s requirements for number of hours needed for clinical experience.
  • Gain experience in pediatrics and neonatal care.
  • Apply for certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).
  • Earn an advanced degree in neonatal nursing (optional).
  • Certification must be renewed every three years.

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