What Do NICU Nurses Do? Qualities & Skills Needed To Be a Great NICU Nurse 987839088534212 [9:30 AM] Katie Iglewski

As a nurse, you’ve recently discovered that you have a love for working with babies. A job as a NICU nurse sounds wonderful, but you’re worried if you really have what it takes to become  the best NICU nurse you can be.

Truth be told, NICU nursing isn’t for everyone.

Embodying specific characteristics and learning specific skill sets help make for a great NICU nurse. 

You know that NICU nurses help care for babies, but really, what do NICU nurses do?

Learn all about NICU nursing and what it takes to care for the world’s tiniest patients here.


Table of Contents



What Is It Like to Be a NICU Nurse?

All nurses should embody many of the same characteristics — they should be kind, caring, compassionate, reliable, and resilient. However, as a NICU nurse, some unique challenges and situations may require you to provide care differently.

NICU nurses work with the tiniest of patients, from babies born too small, babies born too early, or those with complications. Having the ability to care for them in the best way possible while knowing the outcomes might not be favorable takes some extra strength.

Simply put, NICU nurses are superheroes.

By pushing emotions aside and putting responsibilities first, NICU nurses have what it takes to persevere through difficult and emotional days. 

At Trusted Nurse Staffing, our recruiters work with travel nurses and help place them with contracts as NICU nurses. If you’re looking to get started, use Pronto to search for jobs and have our team help you along the way.


what do nicu nurses do


What Does a NICU Nurse Do?

NICU — Neonatal Intensive Care Unit — nurses specialize in caring for premature newborns or babies born with life-threatening illnesses. Although a premature birth is the most common reason a baby might be admitted to the NICU, there are a handful of other reasons, including:

  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS)
  • Sepsis or infection
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Perinatal depression
  • Maternal chorioamnionitis 

There are also times when babies born without complications are discharged home and return to be admitted to the NICU for other conditions, like late-onset infection, cardiac conditions, poor weight gain, or serious illness.

NICU nurses are responsible for many duties regarding a baby’s care to help see them and their parents through a difficult journey, including:

  • Monitoring and assessing vitals
  • Drawing blood
  • Informing and educating parents
  • Ensuring IV fluids and medications are administered
  • Hands-on care
  • 24/7 monitoring of patients
  • Providing oxygen therapy and specialized feeding techniques
  • Ensuring ventilators and other support equipment are working properly
  • Developing and implementing care plans 
  • Documenting patient care


2 Top Responsibilities of a NICU Nurse

While every responsibility that a NICU nurse has is important, two major responsibilities may be deemed the most important of them all.

Remember, NICU patients are babies. They don’t talk, they have no understanding of what is going on, and they’re likely scared. 

They’re vulnerable. And so are their families.

Yes, monitoring vitals, drawing blood, and working on care plans are all important, but providing family support and administering the best care possible are two of the biggest responsibilities of a NICU nurse.


#1: Providing Family Support

Being away from your child is tough enough, but being separated from them while they are hospitalized, sick, and helpless is even more difficult.

As a NICU nurse, keeping parents and family well-informed, educated, and full of resources is one of the best things that you can do.

For some parents, their NICU baby could be their first and only child. Or, it could be their first experience with a NICU. Or maybe they had a traumatizing NICU experience in the past.

Be supportive, be communicative, and be effective in your approach.


#2: Administering Excellent Care

It goes without saying that every patient cared for, whether in the NICU or elsewhere, should be cared for with the best intentions in mind.

But as a NICU nurse who provides care for babies without their families, administering excellent care 100% of the time is crucial. 

Remember, these vulnerable infants are counting on you to get them home to their parents by giving them the finest care available to them.


Is Working as a NICU Nurse Difficult?

Working as a NICU nurse tends to be emotionally draining, maybe more so than other nursing specialties. Why does that seem to be the case? It could be that the population of patients is so vulnerable that it takes extra resilience to deal with their daily care and support, and sometimes, loss.

But where emotions tend to be higher for NICU nurses, physical demand tends to be lower. 

Not only are NICU patients tiny and lighter than patients typically admitted to other areas, making them easier to lift and move, but they also require ample sleep and rest to help grow and heal so more time is spent observing them in incubators than it is physically assisting them.


Requirements to Become a NICU Nurse

Does becoming a NICU nurse sound like something you could see yourself doing? 

First, you must become a registered nurse (RN) by earning either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Once you’ve graduated from your program, you must take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become board-certified and receive your specific state’s nursing license.

Your first job as an RN will likely not be in the NICU. Oftentimes, nurses who do wish to work in the NICU first work in pediatrics before transitioning to the NICU after gaining some experience. If your hospital offers a NICU residency program, it might be a good idea to utilize this option to gain experience.

Although not required, nurses can obtain extra certifications to help increase potential NICU job offers and higher salaries.


what makes a good nicu nurse


What Makes a Great NICU Nurse?

A NICU nurse must have both the professional knowledge and “soft skills” necessary to be an effective NICU nurse — one that can adequately care for their patients while displaying the important characteristics necessary for success.

Working in a neonatal unit requires you to pivot between extreme situations and emotions. One moment might be filled with joy at the birth of a child while the next is filled with sadness over the loss of another one.

So how are NICU nurses so great? They embody some important characteristics that help them through their days. 


Top 4 Characteristics Needed To Be a Good NICU Nurse


#1: Empathy

Newborn babies are tiny. They’re vulnerable, sometimes alone, and likely inherently scared. Often, critically ill infants cannot be in direct contact with their parents due to their precarious conditions, so they require a similar maternal figure to care for them.

NICU nurses must fill this gap, combining emergency-quality medical skills with genuine love and care for the child.

Empathy also allows nurses to provide comfort to the families of these tiny patients. A nurse with empathy can establish a meaningful connection with parents and assure them that their little one is being well cared for.

Even more, empathetic nurses can quickly recognize signs of distress in their patients and adjust their care accordingly.


#2: Compassion

On the surface, being compassionate means you have a deep awareness of and sympathy for another person’s suffering without judgment. But, as a NICU nurse, the meaning runs deeper.

In nursing, specifically NICU nursing, being compassionate means you:

  • Alleviate suffering
  • Listen with care
  • Can develop a trusting relationship with the patients
  • Go above and beyond to attend to their needs

Because NICU nurses often work closely with patients and their families for an extended time, having compassion can go a long way.

Research has shown that a compassionate nurse can ease a patient’s suffering, which makes them such a critical component in medical situations.


#3: Adaptability

As a nurse, having the ability to anticipate, respond to, and manage a situation is imperative. This is especially true for NICU nurses.

Think about it. Their patients are tiny. They cannot speak, cannot feed themselves, cannot change themselves. They’re unable to let you know when something hurts, something doesn’t feel right, or if they need help.

As a nurse in the neonatal unit, thinking quickly and critically to assess situations can save lives.

By remaining vigilant, observant, and detail-oriented, NICU Nurses continue to provide quality care to their patients.


#4: Drive

To be caring, compassionate, and adaptable, you must also be driven. With drive, you have a desire to make a difference in people’s lives.

Not only are the best NICU nurses driven and passionate about helping babies with complex medical conditions, but they also wish to make a positive impact by providing the best comfort and care possible.


nicu nurse tips

Top 4 Skills That Turn Good NICU Nurses Into Great NICU Nurses

Are you a great communicator and critical thinker? Do you have a knack for multi-tasking? Are your interpersonal skills stellar? 

If so, you likely have a place as a NICU nurse. Trusted Nurse Staffing can help you land the NICU job of your dreams, whether you’re a first-time travel nurse or a seasoned professional. Contact us today!


#1: Critical Thinking

The concept of critical thinking as a NICU nurse extends beyond nursing knowledge learned in school. For NICU nurses, critical thinking involves:

  • Anticipating the needs of patients
  • Recognizing potential and real complications
  • Communicating needs, complications, and thoughts effectively with the care team

A newborn’s condition in the NICU can change quickly and sometimes unexpectedly. To assess a newborn’s situation both timely and accurately, NICU nurses must use critical thinking skills. 

If you’re a NICU nurse who can do this, you’ll likely provide better care to your patients.

Imagine this:

You’re a NICU nurse with several medically fragile infant patients. You just arrived at work and are reviewing the day’s caseload.

Here’s where your critical thinking comes into play.

Which patient do you see first? Is one in need of more urgent care than another? Who needs medication first? Who just needs to be held? How are you going to work through this day most efficiently while also providing the care each patient needs?


#2: Communication

As a NICU nurse, not only are you responsible for effectively communicating with doctors and colleagues, but you’re the mediator between doctors and parents and infants and their parents.

Your job is to bring situations to the doctor’s attention, work through a care plan, and also explain complicated situations and terminology to parents.

And even after a patient is well enough to go home, effective communication doesn’t end for you. Now, as a NICU nurse, your job is to explain to these often overwhelmed parents how to care for their baby in their own space.


#3: Multi-Tasking 

NICU nurses often are tasked with performing multiple duties at once. To do this while still providing effective patient care, NICU nurses must be exceptionally competent. 

It’s not uncommon that one nurse tends to multiple babies in the NICU at once — that’s multiple tiny, fragile, defenseless patients to care for.

Imagine trying to place a feeding tube and monitor one baby’s oxygen levels while listening to the alarms beep on another baby’s monitors. Meanwhile, it’s time to eat for a third baby and a fourth’s family just walked in.

Sounds overwhelming, right?

As a NICU nurse who can multitask well, patients can continue to receive effective treatment and care without sacrificing quality.


#4: Interpersonal Skills

We mentioned that NICU nurses are often the communication line between an infant’s parents and their care team. To do this effectively, NICU nurses must establish rapport and trust with a family by utilizing their interpersonal skills.

NICU nurses should pay attention to how families receive information, how their demeanors change when certain situations arise, and how they communicate. 

By taking note of these things, NICU nurses can customize their approach to different families to best communicate information and help put parents at ease.


neonatal nurse qualities


Trusted Nurse Staffing: Helping Great NICU Nurses Land Contracts Around the Country

Working as a NICU nurse is tough. But it’s also incredibly rewarding.

Imagine having the opportunity to take your work around the country, helping to change the lives of babies and families in different facilities as you go.

If you have a love for nursing, a love for children, and a love for travel, working as a travel NICU nurse could be the right job for you. 

At Trusted Nurse Staffing, we have helped thousands of NICU nurses and other nurses just like you land contracts they love.

And the benefits don’t end with travel.

We also offer:

  • Flexible contracts
  • 24-hour access to recruiters
  • Welcome boxes for new nurses
  • Vision and dental plans
  • Food and housing stipends
  • And more

Let Trusted Nurse Staffing help you find your next travel NICU nurse position and start searching on Pronto today.


what do nicu nurses do