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What Is a Neonatologist?

Onsite Neonatal Partners neonatologist caring for a newborn infant at a partner hospital

The medical field is full of knowledgeable and dedicated professionals who have been trained to provide very specific services. Sometimes it can be difficult to understand each individual specialty and how all these physicians all work together to care for our communities. Let’s take a look a look at the role of a neonatologist and explore the benefits of neonatal care.

What Is a Neonatologist?

A neonatologist is a medical doctor (MD or DO) who has received special training to care for premature and sick newborns. All neonatologists are also pediatricians and attend medical school and a full pediatric residency. They then complete an additional 3-year neonatal training program, known as fellowship.

Like all pediatricians, neonatologists take exams to receive a certification from the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP), and they also receive an additional certification from the ABP’s Sub-board of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. You will primarily find neonatologists working in Level II Special Care Nurseries (SCN) and Level III and IV Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), though they also provide care in Level I nurseries, often referred to as Well-Newborn nurseries (WNB). In some cases, a neonatologist may provide short-term outpatient care after a newborn has been discharged from the unit.

What Does a Neonatologist Do?

Neonatologists generally provide the following types of care:

1. Prenatal Consultations

When it is anticipated that a baby will stay in the NICU due to prematurity or some other risk factor, neonatologists will meet with the family to explain the situation, provide information about the care their child will receive, and answer any questions the parents may have. This also allows the physicians to begin developing treatment plans for the newborn.

2. Attendance at High-Risk Deliveries

Neonatologists will attend high-risk deliveries in order to ensure the baby is born under the best possible circumstances. The first few minutes after a baby is born can be incredibly important to their health and survival, so neonatologists are able to begin offering treatment right away.

3. Respiratory Therapy

Many premature newborns have difficulty breathing since their lungs have not fully developed. Neonatologists use different practices and treatments to help the newborn until they are able to breathe on their own.

4. Stabilize Fragile Newborns

In the same way that doctors treat critically-ill adults in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU), neonatologists help to stabilize newborns suffering from life-threatening ailments in order to keep moms and babies united, and until they can receive proper treatment.

5. Diagnose and Treat Illnesses

Neonatologists are constantly working to diagnose and treat various infections, birth defects, and breathing disorders in sick and premature newborns so that they can safely leave the NICU with their family

6. Provide Proper Nutrition

Tiny babies need very specific nourishment in order to grow, and it can be difficult for them to breastfeed when they are ill. Neonatologists use breast milk, formula, and medical supplements to help babies develop properly.

7. Coordinate Neonatal Care Team

Neonatologists oversee teams of specialists in caring for many newborns at once. These teams can include neonatal nurse practitioners, registered nurses, respiratory therapists, lactation consultants, and more.

8. Educate Family Members

Caring for a premature or otherwise sick newborn can be very different than caring for a healthy full-term baby. Neonatologists educate family members on the differences and teach parents how to specifically care for their NICU graduate after arriving home.

9. Consult with Other Physicians

A neonatologist may consult with obstetricians, pediatricians, and family doctors on the treatment of a fragile newborn and work with these colleagues to create a plan to care for that child in the future.

Neonatologists that is in house 24/7 providing newborn coverage at a hospital

What Is the Difference Between a Pediatrician and a Neonatologist?

The difference between a pediatrician and a neonatologist comes down to their degree of specialization. A general pediatrician provides regular care and treatment for children for a variety of ailments. Neonatologists focus exclusively on the health of newborns and the factors that can affect their survival and growth.

Neonatology is a specialty of pediatrics and as such neonatologists are considered pediatric specialists. Both pediatricians and pediatric specialists focus on children, but the difference lies in extra training and specific knowledge about one particular area of children’s health. Neonatologists are trained to manage complicated and high-risk health situations in fragile newborns and infants, including babies who have health issues in the womb or are born early or with a birth defect. Other pediatric specialists include pediatric cardiologists, neurologists, oncologists, and emergency physicians.

What Is the Difference Between Neonatology and Maternal-Fetal Medicine?

If a woman is identified as having a high-risk pregnancy, such as being pregnant with twins, she will likely meet with a Maternal-Fetal Medicine (MFM) specialist as well as a neonatologist before giving birth. In the same way that neonatologists are pediatricians with special training, MFM physicians are obstetricians who have received 3 additional years of training in high-risk pregnancies.

MFM specialists provide prenatal care for women with risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and other existing health problems. They work with neonatologists to educate parents about any potential complications they may experience and any issues facing their child or children.

Neonatologists Provide the Best Care for Newborns

The issues facing newborn babies are very different from adults and they require attention from highly trained and qualified specialists. Neonatologists are able to understand the specific illnesses that affect premature newborns, such as breathing difficulties and circulatory problems, and can provide the treatment they need to thrive long after they leave the NICU.

If you are pregnant and looking for a birthing hospital, choose one that has experienced neonatologists in the building 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to ensure your baby receives the specific care they need.

To find a hospital staffed with Onsite neonatologists near you, click here to view our interactive partner map.

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