Nurses are everyday heroes who use their healthcare talent and passion for people to make our world a better place. From critical care, to labor and delivery, to neonatal care, registered nurses (RNs) can choose from a myriad of nursing specializations that will help them gain the knowledge and experience to save countless lives across the country.
For Tori, the right place was easy: she knew she belonged in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Read more to learn how to become a NICU nurse and get a bonus insight into the life of a NICU travel nurse with Tori Meskin.
How to become a NICU nurse
If you have a passion for helping vulnerable populations with tiny little hands, a career in neonatal intensive care could be for you. To become a NICU nurse, you must obtain the correct degree, licensure, and specialty certification. Those interested in NICU nursing should pursue either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Both programs require students to take and pass the NCLEX-RN at graduation, but the programs differ in length and focus.
While an ADN typically takes students two years to complete, a BSN program is a four-year degree with more general education courses in humanities and social sciences in addition to the core nursing courses. After graduation, nurses interested in neonatal care must take the NCLEX-RN to obtain their state licensure. Once you've earned your licensure, you can pursue several different neonatal care certifications like the certification for neonatal intensive care nursing (RNC-NIC) or the CCRN neonatal specialty certification. You'll also want to look into a neonatal resuscitation program (NRP) credential.
From there, it's time to put your skills to the test and enter the world of neonatal patient care.
NICU travel nurses are in high demand
Critical care nurses are usually in high demand, but NICU nurses (and other medical professionals involved with neonatal nursing) are especially attractive in today's market for many employers. A registered nurse with clinical experience in the medical procedures necessary to treat infants can make a huge difference in the field — which is why a NICU travel nurse salary is often relatively impressive.
The neonatal intensive care unit is around-the-clock care for newborns who need intense medical care, and sometimes also infants who are less urgently sick but still require special care. Neonatal RNs may find themselves caring for newborns who are preterm, under 5.5 lbs, and have health conditions like birth defects, heart problems, breathing issues, etc.
A NICU nurse must be able to take on these specific challenges for a niche group of patients. Their specialized set of skills means that whether they're helping infants or reassuring scared parents, NICU nurses work to make a difference at every level.
Q&A with Tori Meskin, BSN RNC-NIC
Megan Bebout: Hi Tori! So, let's start first with how you decided to start working in healthcare.
Tori Meskin: I really don't have a grand story in terms of my driving force behind becoming a nurse. Deep down, I always knew it was something I wanted to do. For me, I saw it as a career where I could not only make a difference in someone's life, but also have endless growth opportunities. The ability to work two to three days a week, shift into new roles or units in hospitals, support myself, and all with job security and the ability to help others in some way — that was the jackpot for me.
MB: It's admirable that a part of you has always known nursing is where you're meant to be. Tell us: for you, what's so important and special about nursing jobs working in the NICU?
TM: The NICU is such a special piece of the medical world. There is truly nothing like it! We work with the tiniest, most vulnerable patient population there is. One day, we can be teaching a dad how to change a diaper or give a bath for the first time and the next day, attend a crash C-section and care for a baby requiring basic life support.
We work in such a “taboo” part of the hospital setting and patient care population. No one expects to have a baby in the NICU, unless something is diagnosed prenatally. Not only is our patient care vital, but so is our relationship with the parents. We help guide parents through one of the hardest moments in their life, which is very special.
MB: Wow, that was wonderfully worded. It seems like you have to have a few special skills to work with these little patients. What qualities does it take to be a NICU RN?
TM: The top four things that come to mind for becoming a successful neonatal ICU nurse are:
Critical thinking: Critical thinking is ESSENTIAL. This trait is crucial, as it will help you to assess, communicate, and react quickly to rapidly changing situations. Information you gather as a nurse include vital signs, changes in assessment, lab values, diagnostic imaging, and helps you as the nurse to know when the situation is deteriorating.
Communication: When working in this are of specialization, you will be the intermediary between parents, doctors, specialty teams, respiratory therapists, occupational and/or physical therapists, etc. So, get used to being the middle (wo)man! You will also be tasked with monitoring the infant and provide all the information to other medical professionals that are also giving care to the baby. Due to the nature of the job, it's imperative to have excellent communication skills to work effectively in the NICU.
Attention to detail: One of the most important things in our line of work is attention to detail. We work in grams, milliliters, and micro levels. Double-checking yourself is key in care for our babies.
Sense of humor: Yes, you need one of these. This is something we all develop in our baby world. Babies have a funny way of communicating, so once you learn their little ways, it becomes second nature and even more fun to work with them.
MB: Those are all great qualities to develop as a NICU nurse! Now, what about those who are already NICU nurses? What are some ways to expand your healthcare career and focus on career advancement even further?
TM: One of the best things I ever did for my career was travel nursing. I started after three-and-a-half years with a solid foundation and worked in several amazing NICUs (children's hospitals, university hospitals, etc.). I was able to learn from other units, network and meet new people, get out of my comfort zone, and rekindle my love of NICU nursing.
In addition, I love conferences. Low-key, I feel this is one of the best ways to learn, network, and of course obtain those CEUs. I obtained my RNC-NIC and apply so many of the continuing credits from those conferences that I have attended.
MB: Love that! Travel nurses perform such important work, and you get to help different people in different communities all over. Discuss why nurses (and NICU travel nurses specifically) are important in the healthcare community.
TM: The nursing role has greatly expanded over the past 30 years. We are used in so many settings (in-patient, outpatient, surgical, telehealth, informatics, travel, specialties, etc.). The opportunities are endless for nurses. We are in every aspect of the healthcare community. There's an increasing need for us as healthcare evolves, which is great in terms of job security. But I feel moreover that our patients need good quality care. We are often the link between patient and provider. We are the “host” of the part, if you will. We communicate our patients' needs with various specialties, connect patients to their needs, and direct them to the answers they need. Nursing goes beyond simple bedside care. We are a valuable asset to both outpatients and providers.
MB: Nurses are like the backbone of the healthcare community. So, since you have experience as a staff neonatal intensive care nurse, travel nurse, and then some, what's been your most memorable experience as a NICU nurse so far?
TM: In the NICU, we work with both babies who are thriving and then also some who sadly don't make it home from the NICU. My most memorable moment in my career thus far was with a MicroPreemie whose father was the primary parent. The father's devotion to his baby was so special and memorable. He worked construction and could only visit on night shifts. I learned his schedule, made each night special for him and his son, and really worked to make his time with his son something he would never forget. This baby was so kind, sweet, and sensitive. We had a lot of rough shifts, but whenever his dad was there, baby just knew. He loved being held, his bath times with his dad, and cuddling, and would gaze at his father with such sweetness. There came a point where the baby began to decline, and I was the nurse there to guide that father through the elective withdrawal as his baby passed. This was one of the hardest moments in my career, but also one of the most meaningful. Neonatal nursing means we work in both the best and most difficult moments in a parent's life, and this makes what we do so special.
MB: Thank you for sharing that with us! There are definitely rewards and challenges in your profession. What are some of the challenges of working in the healthcare field?
TM: Without a doubt, these past years have been the most trying times in our healthcare profession. We have been stretched of resources, staff, and support. Healthcare is not for the faint of heart. I think the best mindset is to come in with a strong mentality and lead with opportunity. Although we all have a passion to care for our patients (and yes, that's a crucial aspect of what we do), I also believe in order to thrive in our roles as nurses, we have made a foundation of opportunity. Seeking employment in good facilities, networking, continued learning, and focusing on replenishing ourselves away from the bedside. This is what will keep you going! Working in healthcare can be draining. It's a lot of energy exchange, both good and bad. Maintaining a strong mindset and shifting when you need to is imperative.
MB: The past two years have definitely been challenging for members of the healthcare community. On the flip side, finding things that propel you forward in your career and in your heart can make it worthwhile. What are the rewards of being a nurse?
TM: There is nothing better than discharging a baby home with the parents, foster parents, etc. after a long NICU journey. We create such strong bonds with our babies and their parents. We are a unique unit in the fact that we work with our patients anywhere from days to months at a time, and on occasion, even up to a year. We get to know our babies on a deep level, as well as their parents. Becoming a parent's touchstone, liaison, or dare I say, “favorite nurse,” based on built relationships is the best.
MB: I bet it feels good to make such a difference in a family's life. You've made such an incredible impact in the lives of many. What advice would you give to other nurses just finding their path?
TM: The best advice I can give you is to put your blinders on. There is a lot of noise out there in terms of social media and distractions that can sway you. I would say my best tool and technique is to stay focused on what you want and know you were meant to do. I knew I was meant to become a nurse and that I wanted to find my way to the NICU. Even though I was determined of my path, it wasn't easy. I faced a lot of rejection through the nursing school process, job application process, and hit many roadblocks. If you want it, get it. Don't take no for any answer. If you hate what you're doing, shift and find a new way to make it happen. I know a lot of nurses who started in one area and made their way to a whole new specialty. You can do it!
MB: Is there anything you wish you knew before becoming a nurse?
TM: Becoming a nurse was so exciting for me. Developing my care and practice in the beginning was such a thrilling time in my life, but soon after, I also experienced burnout. Nowadays, the demands on us in healthcare care so high. In order to combat this, I have shifted in my career. I started travel nursing as a NICU nurse, worked full-time, part-time, and per diem. I even tried out Critical Care Pediatric Float Pool to get a change of pace. Rather than choosing to lead with passion, I have chosen to lead with opportunity. I have pivoted in my career and made it stimulating in different ways to help battle burnout. This has helped me continue to be the best neonatal ICU nurse I can be.
MB: Yes! Leading with opportunity is great advice. One of the ways you've added to your career is through social media. What made you decide to share your nursing experience as an influencer?
TM: My foundation in social media has always been providing value to my community. I started Instagramming about my life working in NICU in 2019 after three-and-a-half years of working as a NICU nurse. I was working as a travel nurse at that point and started sharing little “tips” and a behind-the-scenes look of what it's like to be a NICU nurse. From there, I started my blog out of pure necessity! I started to be flooded with so many questions about being or becoming a neonatal intensive care nurse, so I needed to create a landing pad to share with others to answer their questions more in depth. Since then, the blog has expanded and continued to be one of my greatest platforms.
A few years after the blog, I started a podcast where my nurse co-host and I expand on healthcare specialties, taboo topics, and whole new side of the healthcare field most don't know even existed. It has been a wild ride and I love the community I have following along with me.
MB: Well, we are glad you decided to share your experience with us. Thank you so much!
It takes a special kind of someone to embark in a travel nursing career, especially one where you treat the most vulnerable patient population. Like Tori said, there's nothing like working with tiny patients who require intense, direct care. And not only do NICU RNs treat NICU babies in need, but they also help comfort and guide parents in the process.
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Tori Meskin, BSN RNC-NIC
Tori Meskin, BSN RNC-NIC is a nurse, blogger, and podcaster. Tori has been a clinician since 2012, works in acute care/inpatient NICU and pediatric settings in Southern California. She's a blogger, podcaster, NICU and pediatric critical care RN, sponsored Capella University MSN student, a Barco Uniforms Ambassador and Brave Beginnings Ambassador. She has obtained her National NICU Nurse Certification and has previously worked as a travel nurse, pursuing bedside experiences in several NICU settings. Follow her as she shares her NICU journey, married life, and juggles work, school, content creation, and brings you top-notch tips and tricks along the way. Find her at www.tipsfromtori.com or email@example.com.