Neonatology is a subspecialty of pediatrics which focuses primarily on the medical needs of newborn babies, or neonates. If a baby is born prematurely or presents with an obvious medical problem at birth, he or she may be brought directly to a neonatology center for intensive treatments. Neonatology teams generally limit their practice to babies born in the hospital but not released, or those transferred from other neonatal intensive care units (NICU). Once a mother and child are released from the hospital, most neonatalogy centers will refer any emergency care to a standard pediatric care unit.
A pediatrician who wants to become a neonatology specialist must first earn his or her standard medical license and then complete three more years of training. Most neonatology work is performed at larger hospitals with the resources to provide state-of-the-art NICU equipment and staffing. Most expectant mothers with normal pregnancies would never encounter a neonatologist under most conditions, although one might be consulted by the birthing team if a complication should arise.
Neonatology specialists study such things as the effects of a mother's lifestyle or outside environment on the development of newborns. There are also medical conditions unique to newborns, such as asphyxia from the umbilical cord or a blood condition which causes mothers to form antibodies against their own child's blood type. Babies born to cocaine or alcohol-addicted mothers may also be brought directly to a neonatology center for further observation and treatment.
Many pediatricians do not enter the field of neonatology because the working hours can be brutal and the salary range is not always commeasurate with the level of responsibility. A starting neonatology specialist may only earn US$75,000, with a veteran neonatologist topping out at US$250,000. Oftentimes a critical newborn patient may require 24-hour care, which can mean long shifts and irregular sleep schedules. Most neonatology work is hands-on, with only an occasional opportunity to pursue research work or attend seminars.
Neonatology can be an exciting field for those who are passionate about pediatrics and critical care in general. NICU staff members tend to be very compassionate and knowledgeable by nature, and the work environment can be much less stressful than emergency medicine or general pediatric practice.