There are many types of nurses, all of whom can make a difference in patients’ lives while enjoying rewarding careers. If you’re passionate about working with infants and their families, neonatal care is one potential specialization.
Some neonatal nurses work in the specialized environment of a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). NICU nurses care for premature and sick newborn babies between their time of birth and their eventual discharge from the hospital.
How much can you expect to make when working in a NICU? It depends on your credentials, training, and specific role within the hospital.
In this short guide, we’ll go over the average NICU nurse salary by position.
Training to Become a NICU Nurse
As with most career fields, your salary depends on your educational background and qualifications. There are several paths to becoming a NICU nurse. We have outlined to the steps on how to become a NICU nurse. To get started, you’ll need to pursue one of the following degrees in the U.S. or Canada:
- ADN – An Associate’s Degree in Nursing usually takes two years to complete. While some NICU units hire nurses directly out of ADN programs, other employers may require you to enroll part-time in a BSN program while beginning work. Upon completion of the more advanced degree, you’ll likely get a raise.
- BSN – A Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing typically takes four years to complete, although it can be even faster if you already have an associates degree in a different field. After completing a BSN, you’ll be prepared to sit for your certification exam as a registered nurse.
- MSN – Some nurses pursue MSN degrees to make a career transition after obtaining a BA in a different field. Others pursue this advanced degree after their BSN to improve their credentials and receive higher pay. An MSN typically takes two years to complete.
No matter which degree you pursue, you’ll also need to take the NCLEX. This exam tests your practical knowledge and professional ethics. To pass and become a registered nurse (RN), you’ll need to score 75% or higher.
As an RN, you’ll be able to apply for a wide variety of jobs in neonatal care, helping you get the experience you need to eventually become a certified NICU nurse.
Certifications and Experience
While some NICU units hire freshly graduated and licensed RNs, you’ll need two years of experience working with newborn infants before you can sit for the certification exams that qualify you as an official NICU nurse. These exams also open the door to hire pay.
Look for jobs in NICUS, labor and delivery, pediatric care, and other closely related fields to begin amassing appropriate hands-on experience with infants, children, and their families.
Then, choose from between two certification options for NICU nursing:
- CCRN-Neonatal – This certification program is overseen by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. Requirements to sit for the exam include two years of experience and 1,750 hours caring for premature and ill infants.1
- RNC-NIC® – Similar to the CCRN, the RNC Certification for Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing requires two years of experience, but slightly more hours of work (2,000). However, these hours can include research and administration along with patient care.2
Check job postings in your area to see if there is a preference for one certification over the other. You can also inquire to see how their neonatal nurse salary ranges compare.
Different Types of NICU
Eventually, your education, training, and certification can qualify you to work in a level II, III, or IV NICU.3
- Level II units care for premature infants and ill newborns with issues that are expected to resolve. You’ll need specialized skills to observe infants’ conditions, but you may not interact with subspecialists or surgeons.
- Level III units care for newborn babies born before 32 weeks, infants in need of surgery, and other critical cases. These units are staffed with more highly trained specialists, including NICU nurses with advanced skill sets.
- Level IV NICU units are typically found in regional hospitals and deal with even more critically ill infants. NICU nurses in these units need the highest level of skill and expertise.
What happened to level I?
As we explained, not all neonatal nurses work in NICUs.
Level I neonatal care is administered to healthy babies who can be discharged from the hospital without additional observation or intervention. Level I neonatal nurses need fewer specialized skills and thus may make less money than their NICU counterparts.
As you can guess, your salary will vary based on the specific unit you work in and the level of skill required.
NICU Roles, Responsibilities, and Salaries
Let’s take a closer look at the specific roles you can apply for and the salaries you can expect while nursing in a NICU.
NICU nurses may be paid hourly or receive a salary. In both cases, they can expect to make more than other RNs without specialized neonatal training.
- While the national average salary for RNs is around $40,000, NICU nurses make closer to $64,074 on average.4
- The median hourly pay is $32.70 per hour—more than the $30.19 other RNs usually make.
Neonatal Case Manager
Neonatal case managers are registered nurses who serve as points of contact for families.
- While NICU nurses administer around-the-clock care, case managers have a more senior role that involves synthesizing several nurses’ observations to report to infants’ families.
- Case managers also communicate the doctor’s findings and the infant’s progress with the family.
- Case managers are needed in both level II and III NICU units.
The average salary for neonatal case managers is $71,654.5
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
Some nurses work closely with doctors and specialists, while others operate more independently.
We’ve already discussed the potential degrees that you can pursue to become a NICU RN. However, you’ll need additional education to become a Nurse Practitioner (NP).
Through their MSN or DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) degrees, NPs become qualified to evaluate and treat patients independently, much like doctors do. Then, they can apply for certification through one of several licensing bodies:
- American Nurses Credentialing Center
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses
- Pediatric Nursing Certification Board
After receiving proper certification and hospital privileges from their employer, they can also order tests and prescribe medication.
Because NPs have more training and responsibility than other NICU nurses, they can draw a higher salary.
NICU NPs make a median income of $126,846 per year.6
Other Factors in Salary
Beyond your experience, role, and training, other factors play a major role in your take home pay. The most important are experience and location.
As with most careers, you’ll have opportunities for advancement and raises over time.
While the average starting salary for NICU nurses is around $60,000, the average salary for seasoned nurses is closer to $80,000.7
It’s also important to note that NICU nurses face good prospects for career and income growth. As the current generation of highly skilled, experienced nurses retires, there will be even more demand for qualified RNs.
Since NICU nurses have even more specialized skills and training, they can expect demand to grow over time. Making the investment in your education now could potentially pay off as the population and healthcare industry continue to grow.
Nursing is generally considered a thriving profession. However, nurse’s salaries can vary considerably between states.
While the salary for RNs is, on average, around $40,000, RNs in California average over $111,000 per year!
The same geographic fluctuation applies to NICU nursing. According to ZipRecruiter:8
- In Massachusetts, NICU nurses take home the most pay, averaging around $105,000
- The lowest salaries are in Florida, where NICU RNs make closer to $76,000
As you can see, this specialty is still more highly paid than others, but how much more depends on where you work.
Some people hope to begin a nursing career and settle down. Others see their desirable skill set as the launching point for a life filled with travel and variety.
Travel nursing jobs aren’t just exciting—they can also pay off, literally. Hospitals and clinics often need nurses to fill in for employees who are on sabbatical or bring their skill set to remote and rural areas, and they’ll pay a premium to find qualified nurses.
The average salary for traveling nurses is around $100,000. Thanks to their specialized skill set, NICU travel nurses might make even more.
You will need a multi-state nursing license to begin traveling—but after you’ve acquired so much other extensive training, this process should be a comparatively easy one.
Explore Your Options with Host Healthcare
While the path to become a NICU nurse can be long and winding, at the end, you’ll have in-demand qualifications and excellent earning potential.
Where will they take you?
Working with infants is serious business, but you can do it while exploring fun locales across the country.
Host Healthcare is one of the leading travel healthcare companies. Our mission is matching passionate professionals like NICU nurses with the best opportunities around the U.S. Apply today to be matched with a recruiter who can help you take the next step.
- AACN. CCRN (Neonatal). https://www.aacn.org/certification/get-certified/ccrn-neo
- NCC. Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing. https://www.nccwebsite.org/certification-exams/details/5/neonatal-intensive-care-nursing
- Rocky Mountain Hospital. Understanding NICU Levels. https://rockymountainhospitalforchildren.com/health-education/neonatal-intensive-care-unit-levels.dot
- Nurse Journal. Neonatal Nurse Careers and Salary Outlook. https://nursejournal.org/careers/neonatal-nurse/#:~:text=Neonatal%20nurse%20salary%20data%20varies,made%20an%20average%20of%20%2482%2C492.
- Payscale. Average Nurse Case Manager with Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Skills Salary. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Nurse_Case_Manager/Salary/f99e7e31/Neonatal-Intensive-Care-Unit-NICU
- Salary. Nurse Practitioner. https://www.salary.com/research/salary/benchmark/nurse-practitioner-neonatal-salary
- Zip Recruiter. What is the average NICU nurse salary by state. https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/What-Is-the-Average-NICU-Nurse-Salary-by-State