What Is a Neonatologist?

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on July 09, 2023
3 min read

Neonatologists are doctors who specialize in the care of newborn children. Newborns can present a unique set of health challenges that require a high level of skill and medical expertise to treat. This is particularly true of premature newborns and those with underdeveloped organs. 

That said, neonatologists also play an important role in more routine aspects of care, like counseling parents before, during, and after childbirth. Their training helps them prepare parents for the everyday aspects of caring for newborns. 

Although most children are born without problems, neonatologists are the first line of support in a high-risk birth. Complications that might require their help include:

Neonatologists are first and foremost pediatricians -- doctors responsible for the medical care of children. When something goes wrong, neonatologists are there to coordinate with other healthcare professionals to provide your baby the proper care. 

In addition to medical school, neonatologists also tale a special pediatric training program that includes: 

  • A three-year residency in the field of general pediatrics
  • Another three years of intense study in neonatal care
  • Certification by the American Board of Pediatrics

Neonatologists also have to complete a thorough written examination before receiving their certifications and being allowed to practice. 

Neonatologists will work with you at every stage of the birthing process, both before and after your child is born. There are various reasons why you might see a neonatologist, such as: 

High-risk pregnancy

In case of a high-risk pregnancy, you may be admitted into the hospital under a neonatologist’s care. They’ll keep a close eye on your vital signs so they can take any corrective actions needed as soon as possible. 

Childbirth complications

Not all deliveries happen smoothly. Neonatologists are often present for difficult births, such as when the umbilical cord presses on or wraps around the baby. In some cases, the baby’s position during delivery is a danger to either the child or the mother. In that case the neonatologist may coordinate and advise the delivery team on the best course of action. 

Congenital disabilities

Babies are sometimes born with underdeveloped organs, weakened immune systems, or other symptoms that would make it hard for them to survive without help. Neonatologists coordinate with other specialists to properly care for children born with these issues.

Neonatologists do most of their work inside neonatal intensive care units, or NICUs. The purpose of a NICU is to support underdeveloped or otherwise fragile children in their first few weeks of life. 

Some of the most common reasons for admission into the NICU are: 

  • Premature birth
  • Sepsis - a life-threatening complication of infection
  • Chorioamnionitis - a bacterial infection that affects membranes around the baby
  • Hypoglycemia -- low blood sugar
  • Respiratory distress syndrome -- breathing trouble that can affect newborns

Babies in the NICU get 24-hour care from a team of experts. Your baby will be in an incubator, a bed that keeps them warm. They may need equipment like a ventilator, tubes on their nose that  help them breathe, or an intravenous (IV) line (a needle in a vein) to give them fluids and medicine. If they can’t eat on their own, they could also have a feeding tube that goes in their mouth or nose and down their throat to their stomach. The amount and type of equipment will depend on just how much support your baby needs.

How long your baby stays in the NICU depends on their condition and how well they respond to treatment. The neonatologist will keep an eye on this and  help decide when your baby is ready to leave the NICU.