Even though the birth of a baby is portrayed as a sweet and life-changing event, some newborns may face challenging moments in their first days in the world. Neonatologists are specialized doctors who care for newborn babies who require extra support to thrive. As a subspecialty of pediatrics, neonatology is dedicated to treating various medical conditions, from respiratory distress syndrome to congenital heart defects.

In this guide, we’ll dive deeper into how to become a neonatologist, how long it takes to become a neonatologist, what they do, and more. So join us and discover how becoming a neonatologist allows you to impact the lives of infants and their families positively. 

What Is Neonatology?

Newborns can present unique health challenges and concerns that require the utmost medical expertise and skill to treat. This is where neonatology emerges as a subspecialty of pediatrics that focuses on providing medical care to newborn infants, especially those born with complications or prematurely. Neonatologists are specialized doctors trained to handle the most complex and high-risk situations involving newborns in their first 28 days of life. Some of the conditions neonatologists treat include:

  • Low birth weight;
  • Congenital malformations;
  • Sepsis;
  • Atrial septal defect;
  • Gastroschisis;
  • Hirschsprung disease;
  • Pulmonary hypoplasia;
  • Birth asphyxia;
  • Intrauterine growth restriction.

Typically, they work in large community hospitals, children’s hospitals, and university medical centers. Within a medical facility, they’re most commonly found in the maternal ward or the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

What Does a Neonatologist Do?

Neonatologists are responsible for providing comprehensive care to critically ill newborns. They may be involved in the baby’s care from the prenatal period (before birth) to their discharge from the hospital. The typical duties and responsibilities of neonatologists include:

  • Diagnosing and treating disorders, infections, or illnesses in newborns;
  • Ordering blood tests or imagining tests to monitor conditions or organ function;
  • Coordinating and managing care, surgery, and treatment;
  • Ensuring that newborns receive the correct nutrition they need to grow and develop;
  • Assisting in the delivery room and providing immediate care to an infant;
  • Consulting with obstetricians and pediatricians to ensure comprehensive care for the infant.

As their line of duty involves working with tiny humans, neonatologists must display a high level of skill combined with ethical and emotional support. 

How to Become a Neonatologist? 

The odyssey of becoming a neonatologist can take up to ten years after high school to complete. Let’s take a closer look at everything you must do on your path to become one. 

How to Become a Neonatologist_

1. Complete 4 years of pre-medical education

The first item on your “Becoming a Neonatologist” checklist is completing four years of pre-medical education or a bachelor’s degree. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) doesn’t specify any requirement on what you should major in your undergraduate studies. However, the importance of a degree with an emphasis on natural sciences and mathematics cannot be overstated. Moreover, a biology, chemistry, psychology, or health sciences degree allows you to complete the prerequisite courses for medical school, such as biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English. A strong natural sciences and mathematics foundation also helps you keep up with the rigorous medical school curriculum. 

Another thing you must pay attention to during your undergraduate studies is maintaining a good GPA for medical school. But what is a good GPA for medical school? According to AAMC, during the 2023-2024 period, the average total GPA was 3.64, the average science GPA was 3.54, and the average non-science GPA was 3.78.

During your pre-medical education, you should also focus on gaining relevant clinical experience in healthcare settings for medical school, such as shadowing a doctor, volunteering at a local hospital, or working as a medical assistant or EMT. 

2. Pass the MCAT

The next milestone in your quest toward a career in neonatology is passing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT is a standardized, computer-based exam required for medical school admission. It is crucial in this process because it assesses your foundational knowledge of natural and behavioral sciences concepts, critical thinking, and analytical skills. Moreover, it demonstrates your readiness for medical school.

Therefore, it goes without saying that you need a good MCAT score to gain a competitive edge in medical school admissions. But how to study for the MCAT? Some of the things we recommend you do include:

  • Developing an effective study plan; 
  • Taking practice tests;
  • Staying updated on test changes;
  • Joining a study group;
  • Reviewing the official AAMC materials, which include study guides, premed webinars, official prep bundles, and more. 

3. Obtain a medical degree

A pivotal step in becoming a neonatologist is applying to and completing medical school to obtain a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Although both have similar curricular structures, with students spending the first portion of their studies in the classroom and the remainder in a clinical setting, a D.O. degree focuses on a holistic approach to patient care. You can apply to medical schools through the centralized medical school application processing service provided by the AAMC, the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS)

If you’re sure you want to pursue a neonatology specialization after residency, you should thoroughly research medical schools with strong pediatric and neonatal medical programs. You must choose a medical school program that aligns with your academic expectations and future aspirations. 

4. Pass the USMLE

Passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is an obligatory step for practicing medicine and obtaining a medical license. The USMLE is divided into three steps, which you’ll take during the following:

  • Step 1: At the end of the second year of medical school;
  • Step 2: In the fourth year of medical school;
  • Step 3: After the first year of residency. 

To prepare for taking the USMLE, we recommend:

  • Setting up a study schedule;
  • Exploring resources provided on the USMLE website;
  • Setting clear goals to keep yourself on track and motivated;
  • Reviewing regularly and drawing from your clinical experience;
  • Staying updated with the latest medical trends.

5. Complete a 3-year pediatric residency program

To become a neonatologist, you must first train as a pediatrician and then specialize in caring for newborns. This means you must complete a three-year residency program in pediatrics. During this training period, you’ll gain valuable practical experience caring for children and infants under the supervision of qualified attendings. A pediatrics residency will also expose you to the NICU and provide you with hands-on experience in neonatal care during your training. 

6. Complete a 3-year fellowship training in neonatal medicine

The next pivotal step in becoming a neonatologist is fellowship training in neonatal-perinatal medicine. During fellowship training, you’ll receive specialized training and clinical experience in caring for newborns, especially those with complex medical conditions. You’ll also be able to engage in clinical or scientific research related to neonatal-perinatal medicine, allowing you to make further advancements in the field. 

7. Become board certified

After completing fellowship training, you can obtain Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Certification from the American Board of Pediatrics (APB). To be eligible for the board examination, you are required to complete a three-year residency in pediatrics followed by a three-year fellowship in neonatal-perinatal medicine and achieve ABP certification in pediatrics. The subspecialty examination for neonatal-perinatal medicine typically takes place during Spring examinations. You must also pay attention to the five-year cycle of maintaining board certification through continuing education and professional development. 

8. Apply for neonatologist positions

The last step to becoming a fully-fledged neonatologist is applying for neonatologist positions. Applying requires careful preparation and a strategic approach to showcase your skills, experience, and passion for providing exceptional care to newborns. You need to prepare your curriculum vitae (CV), which lists your education, residency, and fellowship training in neonatal-perinatal medicine. Your CV should also include any relevant certification, research experience, and relevant clinical experience. 

You also need to craft a compelling personal statement highlighting your passion for neonatology, reasons for pursuing this specialty, and career goals. Moreover, you need to prepare for interviews by researching the medical institution and its values, practicing discussing your clinical experiences, and highlighting any unique skills that set you apart as a candidate. 

An important part of job searching as a neonatologist is building relationships with colleagues, mentors, and professionals in the field through networking events and conferences. Networking can be instrumental in acquiring valuable insights and enhancing your career prospects in the field.

What’s the Career Outlook for Neonatologists?

With advancements in technology and medical treatments, more infants with complex medical conditions are surviving, leading to an increased demand for specialized neonatal care. This steady demand for neonatologists reflects the crucial role they play in saving the lives of premature and critically ill infants. Moreover, career opportunities for neonatologists are most prevalent in healthcare settings that provide neonatal intensive care, such as hospitals, children’s hospitals, private practices, and academic institutions.  

Furthermore, neonatologists can advance their careers by taking administrative roles in practice and hospital management. They can also specialize in different areas of neonatology, such as neonatal cardiology and neonatal neurosurgery. 

Conclusion

The journey to becoming a neonatologist is rewarding and fulfilling, requiring dedication and commitment to lifelong learning. To become one, you must complete undergraduate studies, medical school, residency in pediatrics, and fellowship training in neonatal-perinatal medicine. As you make the first steps toward a career in caring for newborns, explore our M.D. program for a transformative medical education that goes beyond textbooks and classrooms. 

So follow your passion, pursue your dreams, and never stop learning how to provide expert care to the newest members of our society.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to become a neonatologist?

The journey to becoming a neonatologist can take ten years after high school. 

What skills are important for a career in neonatology?

Some of the skills you need to work as a neonatologist include communication skills, technical skills, the ability to work under pressure, problem-solving, and empathy. 

What are some common subspecialties within neonatology?

As neonatology is a subspecialty of pediatrics itself, it doesn’t have any specific subspecialty options. However, as a neonatologist, you can concentrate on specific diseases or birth effects affecting infants. For example, you can specialize in treating newborn strokes, craniofacial surgery, neurosurgery, etc.