Neonatal Nurses Week kicks off this year on September 12 and will bring a week to spread awareness of neonatal nursing as a career and to call attention to the work these nurses do with the tiniest infants.
Sponsored by the National Association of Neonatal Nurses, this observation week shines a spotlight on nurses who work with pre-term and full-term infants who are facing various health challenges from low birth weight to genetically based health issues. According to NANN, nurses generally work with these infants until they are discharged from the hospital after birth, but that can span a months-long period of treatment. Some nurses in this area do continue to see patients until they reach toddlerhood.
Thanks to all the advances in neonatal care and treatment, babies born with problems such as low birth weight face much-improved survival rates than babies born even 15 years ago. And advances in neonatal intensive care units have seen great progress. Research in the Journal of Pediatrics and Neonatal Care shows how many different factors in the care setting can influence the health outcomes of infants. As nurses build awareness of everything from the importance of hand washing to the negative impacts of light and noise in the care environment, overall outcomes continue to get better.
Neonatal nurses are particularly attuned to their tiny patients and they have especially keen observation skills. Neonatal nurses continually monitor the infants’ vital signs, but they also use their own five senses to watch the infants for any changes in behavior or appearance for signs of pain or infection. With such tiny patients, every nursing process takes a more targeted approach including tasks such as central line or breathing and respiratory care so neonatal nurses develop specialized skills.
Working with families is significant part of the neonatal nurse’s day. Helping parent-baby bonds develop as is possible with infants who may be very ill requires careful approaches and often nothing the new parents have ever experienced. Neonatal nurses can help share their own observations for what works to help both parents and babies develop attachments in this critical time. They are also there to help support parents if they can feed babies on their own or even develop special feeding times if additional feeding support is being used.
Nurses in this specialty are devoted to their patients and advocate for them as they are unable to advocate for themselves. Neonatal nurses have sharp critical thinking skills that are necessary when conditions change or the infant is showing signs of distress. They should continue to develop their skills and deepen their knowledge and can do that through achieving certification with programs including the American Association of Critical Care Nurses CCRN-Neonatal program.
Nurses with a passion for dedicated nursing and for some of the most vulnerable patients will find neonatal nursing a meaningful career with opportunity for continual learning.
This year’s celebration of Neonatal Nurses Week continues a tradition that began 21 years ago. In 2000, the National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) launched a day to honor neonatal nurses and expanded that time to a week two years ago to commemorate nurses in this distinct nursing specialty.
Neonatal nurses care for the smallest patients and work closely with a larger team of specialists as they advocate for babies in their care. Nurses care for babies who are often critically ill and are born with various health issues ranging from low birth weight, heart problems, birth defects, infections, and possible drug dependence or exposure. Neonatal babies may need care for recovery from surgery or may have been born prematurely.
Generally, the newborn age is considered neonatal, but neonatal nurses care for these babies until they leave the hospital. Some nurses may continue to care for babies with particular health issues until they are toddlers, although this is less frequent. As a neonatal nurse, you can expect to care for this age range as part of your specialty.
Nurses in this role support and advocate for the families of babies in their care. Families of infants in intensive care are frequently scared, exhausted, and need information on their baby’s health. Keeping them in the loop by giving them information in a way they can understand and take action on is especially important.
As your tiny patients leave your care, families depend on neonatal nurses to help them transition to the next phase where families assume a larger role of the care or care coordination of their baby. As you work with the families and caregivers of these special babies, healthcare education becomes a top task. You’ll help pass along often-complicated information on how to care for an infant who may need various equipment, special medications, or specialized feeding plans that even experienced parents may not know anything about.
As a neonatal nurse, improving your skills and continuous learning must be a professional and personal commitment. Treating and advocating for the tiniest patients who are not able to advocate for themselves makes your knowledge essential.
Student nurses who are considering neonatal nursing as a career path can look into a student membership of NANN, which will give them the tools they need and help them establish a network of nurses in similar paths. Professional organizations are excellent resources for nurses who want to stay current on the latest evidence-based practices, recent developments in treating neonatal patients, and exciting research that may lead to improved care.
Neonatal nursing is a rewarding and challenging career path. Self-care for nurses is important as the intensity of the NICU includes elation and grief and every emotion in between. If you are a neonatal nurse, try to find some activities that help you manage the intensity of your work and give you a balance with your work and home life. Some days it will be impossible as it’s all too easy to bring your worries about your patients with you when you leave work. It’s important to recognize when that happens, honor the critical work you are doing, and have some plans to get back on track.
As medical technology continues to advance, in some areas with rapid speed, the babies in NICU have an increasingly better outlook. And for neonatal nurses, the small victories make the biggest differences.
Nurses have enormous impact on lives and in ways they can probably never imagine. Although neonatal nurses care for newborns and infants, their lasting impact is often remembered over decades.
Today is National Neonatal Nurses Day and the end of National Neonatal Nurses Week, and is a tribute to the ways these nurses change the lives of the tiniest patients. But it’s not just the babies these nurses save—the families of those babies never forget the nurses who cared for their children when they were at their most vulnerable.
If you’re a neonatal nurse, today’s a good day to reflect on how your efforts have a ripple effect. As you care for your patients, think of all the families you have worked with and helped over your career. Then think of all the people who loved those babies as that child grew to a toddler, teenager, or adult and went out into the world.
If that’s an emotional thought, that’s the reason why neonatal nurses are so passionate about and committed to the sometimes joyous sometimes heartbreaking work they do. They care for the newborns who need medical care for a range of medical issues. Their life-saving work is generally done in neonatal intensive care units (NICU), but they may also work in varied level nurseries. Some of these nurses will also make home visits and work in the community to care for sick infants. The infants can range from the tiniest premature baby to a full-term baby born with a critical illness.
If you are interested in a career in this nursing specialty, the National Association of Neonatal Nurses is an excellent resource. Nurses can work as a registered nurse or as a neonatal nurse practitioner. Your educational path will include a master’s degree and potentially a PhD if you want to work as a neonatal nurse practitioner, while a bachelor’s if often sufficient as a registered nurse level. Responsibilities increase between the registered nurse and nurse practitioner levels, as do salary rates.
Neonatal nurses are expected to have a high level of technical competency, and they must remain up-to-date on the constant advances in the field. Certification, as with any nursing field, is always recommended. Certification gives you the advantage of keeping your skills and your knowledge current. The American Assocation of Critical Care Nurses offers three separate certifications for neonatal nurses: CCRN (Neonatal), Acute/Critical Care Nursing; CCRN-K (Neonatal) Acute/Critical Care Knowledge Professional; ACCNS-N (Neonatal), CNS Wellness through Acute Care. There’s no shortage of the ways you can continue your professional and academic path after you earn your degree.
Nurses in this specialty must also have a level of empathy and compassion to care for the tiny babies and the people who love them. You are, in essence, treating the entire family. Helping them navigate the scary ups and downs of daily life in the NICU isn’t easy and is sometimes distracting, but families look to neonatal nurses to guide them. The bond many nurses develop with the families they work with are often strong and lasting. Some of the biggest rewards are hearing back from families years later of the positive effect you had in their lives.
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