Career advice

Neonatal care: why it’s a rewarding career, whatever your nursing background

Services for sick babies can offer opportunities for adult nurses keen for a fresh direction

Services for sick babies can offer opportunities for adult nurses keen for a fresh direction

Picture: Alamy

If you don’t know much about the neonatal service, you're not alone. Many nurses never see the service so are not aware of the fantastic career opportunities it offers.

Neonatal critical care is a high-cost, low-volume service for newborn infants. Most of the infants are premature but the service also provides care for sick full-term infants, those with medical problems and infants who require surgery.   

When the service is covered in the media, it is usually to report a baby enduring dramatic, life-threatening illness and surviving against all odds. Although there are nail-biting moments in neonatal care, thankfully they are rare.

Neonatal units face a staffing crisis 

Those who do know about the service also know there is a staffing crisis. In 2015, a report by Bliss, the charity for babies born premature or sick, showed 64% of neonatal units in England did not have the staff they needed, with two thirds of units not having enough specialist nurses.

‘The shortage of nursing staff is the biggest risk to the neonatal service’

The shortage of nursing staff in neonatal care also formed part of the NHS Long Term Plan, published in January this year. The plan promises more investment in the service, including an increase in the number of neonatal nurses.

The neonatal service is highly centralised. Organised neonatal networks provide a range of care designed to meet the needs of infants at different levels.

The best outcome for the infant is when they are cared for in the right unit, one that is staffed and equipped to meet their needs. The sickest infants will be born in hospitals or transferred to hospitals where the best facilities are available, while infants who require less support can be cared for in neonatal units closer to home.

The shortage of nursing staff is the biggest risk to the neonatal service. Factors that have caused the staffing crisis include retirement, promotion, staff turnover and developments in nurse education, which changed the pool of staff from which we traditionally recruited.

Picture: iStock

A viable career for nursing professionals with transferable skills

Safe staffing in neonatal care is vital, and this is where you could come in. Of course we want children’s nurses – they have the ideal skill set – but there is a will to do things differently and invest in staff who have come from a wider pool.

Managers are keen to bring people in who may not have thought about neonatal nursing as a career pathway, such as midwives who fancy a career change or adult-trained nurses willing to use their transferable skills. As we become increasingly aware of the importance of caring for tiny minds, dual-registered mental health and adult nurses are especially welcome.

‘The prevailing ethos in neonatal care is to integrate the family into the team’

So, what do neonatal services have to offer? There may not be a crock of gold, but we can guarantee the opportunity to work with and be part of a tightly knit and appreciative multidisciplinary team. We offer a friendly welcome and support package, and opportunities for further training to equip you to function in this very specialist area.

The prevailing ethos in neonatal care is to integrate the family into the team. This minimises separation, promotes attachment and bonding, and helps the family to develop confidence in caring for their infant. One of the best bits of the job is working with and getting to know these families, then there is the knowledge that you have been a very special part of the start of an individual’s life.   

If you are interested in a career in neonatal services, find out more by visiting the RCN website or the Neonatal Nurses Association 

Doreen Crawford is nurse adviser with consultancy Crawford McKenzie, a member of the RCN acute care forum and consultant editor of Nursing Children and Young People 



Claire O'Mara is lead nurse/innovation lead for the east of England neonatal operational delivery network and chair of the Neonatal Nurses Association  



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