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What Does a Neonatologist Do?

A neonatologist specializes in treating unhealthy infants.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 July 2014
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A neonatologist is a physician who cares for premature and ill newborns. Neonatologists usually work in a hospital settings, in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or special care baby unit (SCBU). These physicians train by completing a residency in pediatrics and following it with a fellowship in neonatology, the branch of medicine which focuses on caring for newborns. Work for neonatologists is generally steady, especially if they are willing to relocate for a job.

When a patient is brought to a neonatologist, he or she assesses the patient's health, and may run a series of tests to check on organ function and look for signs of infection. Once the patient has been evaluated, the neonatologist can decide what kind of treatment he or she needs, and what level of care will be required. Neonates often spend a long time in hospital if they are severely ill or very premature, as neonatologists do not want to send babies home before they are completely better, so neonatologists also need to think about issues like ensuring that infants get contact with their parents so that they can bond, providing infants with intellectual stimulation to promote development, and providing suitable nutrition for infants in the NICU or in pediatric care wards.

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Newborns who are premature are usually admitted into the care of a neonatologist because they have some special needs, although they are not necessarily sick. Premature infants have not yet finished their development, and their organ systems may need support while they finish developing. A neonatologist assesses premature babies to determine their gestational age, and makes treatment recommendations. During their stay in the NICU, the infants gradually move to more general wards as they grow stronger and require less monitoring and less intensive care.

Neonatologists also work with infants who are ill or of low birth weight. They may work with neonatal surgeons to address infants with congenital birth defects which require surgery, and they also diagnose and treat sick infants. Some infants may be brought to a neonatologist at birth as illness or birth defects become obvious, while others may be brought back to a hospital after they have arrived home when parents observe emerging health problems which may require treatment.

Skilled neonatologists work with a team of health care providers including respiratory therapists, neonatal nurses, neonatal surgeons, and trainee neonatologists, in some hospitals. Being able to work effectively as part of a team is critical for these medical professionals, and they must also be skilled at communicating with parents and addressing parental concerns. Parents of premature and ill infants are often extremely worried, and the neonatologist must balance their needs with those of the infant in treatment.

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