Although the majority of babies are born healthy, some require specialized care during the early stages of their lives. This care is usually coordinated by a neonatologist, a doctor with specialized training in the care of high-risk infants before and after birth. Like any doctor, neonatologists spend many long years in training before they are eligible for board certification.
The first step toward board certification in neonatology occurs several years earlier, with the aspiring medical student completing an undergraduate premedical degree. This can be in any major, as long as it meets the prerequisites for admission into a medical or osteopathic college. Prerequisites typically include humanities courses, calculus or statistics, and a range of basic and advanced work in the sciences. Medical college builds on that foundation for four more years, adding advanced coursework in areas such as microbiology, biochemistry, medical genetics, medical law and ethics. Classroom instruction takes up the first two years, with the third and fourth spent in supervised clinical practice.
Pediatrics Residency and Certification
Neonatology is a specialty within the field of pediatrics, so at graduation the newly trained doctor must complete a pediatric residency. A three-year residency provides the opportunity to learn the necessary personal skills and techniques to successfully practice in pediatrics. Doctors with an interest in neonatal medicine should serve their residency in a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. Such a setting would provide the most optimal learning environment. After completing the residency, doctors must take and pass a certification exam administered by the Board of Pediatrics. If successful, they become board-certified pediatricians.
Neonatology Fellowship and Certification
Once doctors have successfully become board-certified in pediatrics, they can move on to complete a fellowship in neonatal/perinatal medicine. This takes another three years and provides opportunities for the fellow to learn the care of high-risk infants in the NICU setting as part of a team of caregivers. Infants in the NICU might be born preterm, or have low birth weight because of a multiple birth, parental illness or other cause. Some full-term infants are also placed in the NICU because of acute or chronic illnesses or serious birth defects. After three years of NICU experience, neonatal fellows can write a second board examination in neonatal medicine. If successful, they become board-certified neonatologists.
Maintenance of Certification
Board certification in neonatal/perinatal medicine is not an end in itself, but the beginning of a career-long commitment to continuing education. Neonatal care is a fast-advancing field, and a doctor who doesn't aggressively follow new developments will quickly fall behind. For pediatricians and neonatologists, certification is maintained on a five-year cycle. Every five years, they're required to complete a variety of self-assessment and performance activities designed to ensure their continued competency in the specialty. They must also complete recertification exams every 10 years.
- Neonatology.org: What Is a Neonatologist?
- Baylor College of Medicine: Becoming a Neonatologist
- Neonatology On the Web: A Career in Neonatology
- American Board of Pediatrics: To Become Certified -- General Pediatrics
- American Board of Pediatrics: To Become Certified -- Neonatal/Perinatal Medicine
- American Board of Pediatrics: To Maintain Certification -- Maintaining Multiple Certifications
- Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images