Neonatal Nursing vs. Midwifery: Key Differences Between These Careers

Neonatal nurses (sometimes known as NICU nurses) and midwives play an essential part in the healthcare industry and childbirth. Combined, both roles cover many tasks when it comes to pregnancy, childbirth, and general care. For example, neonatal nurses often provide any treatment, perform tests, and documents patient history for the first 28 days.

If you’re looking for a career path in healthcare, or already enrolled in online nursing courses trying to decide on a specialisation—learning the difference between neonatal nurses and midwifery might help. Whilst both roles are integral when it comes to helping babies and families, they both do it in different ways. 

If you’re at a crossroads deciding which career path to go down—our guide is here to highlight the key differences between the careers. Both are extremely rewarding jobs, and you will get to assist families first-hand and see the positive impact your care has.

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The role of a neonatal nurse

The role of a neonatal nurse is in the name, with ‘neonatal’ referring to newborn—‘neo’ means new and ‘natal’ meaning birth. The term neonatal also refers to the first 28 days of life. Neonatal nurses are a crucial part of any neonatal care team, working in hospitals, nurseries, and postnatal wards.

The work of a neonatal nurse will depend on the work setting. For example, a nurse in a maternity ward will be different to one working in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). 

Typically, though, a neonatal nurse’s day-to-day tasks will include providing general care to the newborns, administering treatment, performing tests, managing body fluids, and any medications. For instance, providing general care includes feeding, bathing, and changing diapers. They also play a crucial role in helping mothers build relationships with their infants.

If you’re considering becoming a neonatal nurse, it’s also important to consider the potential emotional stress, especially working in the NICU. Part of your role could include working with premature babies, providing breathing support, and even resuscitation in emergencies.

Key differences with midwifery

Where neonatal nurses focus specifically on providing care to newborns, midwives primarily focus more on pregnancy and delivery. While both are healthcare professionals working in the same field, a midwife focuses on providing prenatal care, assisting with childbirth, and postpartum care.

If you have a strong interest in women’s reproductive health and helping to-be mothers and families, midwives are a great opportunity. Whilst there isn’t as heavy a focus on the newborns after birth, as there is a neonatal nurse, you’re still helping the mother through the pregnancy and ensuring they have the right care and support.

Midwives work in similar work settings to neonatal nurses, including hospitals, birth centres, and even community programs. It’s common for midwives and neonatal nurses to also work collaboratively with patients.

Midwives also have the opportunity to specialise in fields such as perinatal mental health, sonography, and lactation, which might not be available for neonatal nurses.

Study time and salary expectations

If studying time is a deciding factor when it comes to choosing between these two career paths for you—the timeframe to become a midwife is much shorter. It takes a minimum of three years to become a midwife. It’s also possible to do postgraduate courses to become a midwife if you’re already a Registered Nurse.

In comparison, to become a neonatal nurse, it takes a minimum of 4 to 6 years. On top of completing a degree and becoming a Registered Nurse, post-graduate studies must also be undertaken, specialising in neonatal care. 

Because of the longer completion time to become a neonatal nurse, as well as the specialisation—it typically has a higher average salary than a midwife.

Which career is best for you?

Deciding on which career path would best suit you would come down to a few factors. Important aspects you should consider include the time it takes to study, employment opportunities, and passion. 

With that in mind, did you know that together, nurses and midwives make up more than half of Australia’s healthcare workforce? Neither role would have any trouble finding a job, and employment for both is expected to rise in the coming years, along with other healthcare roles.

If you love the idea of working directly with newborns but aren’t too interested in labour and delivery—neonatal nursing is the specialisation for you. Midwives primarily assist with delivering babies and providing prenatal care, and don’t have as much hands-on time after birth compared to a neonatal nurse.