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Requirements to Be a Neonatologist

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One out of every eight babies born in the U.S. arrives early; others have complications such as low weight, birth defects or illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The specialized care infants need during their first few weeks or months comes from a neonatologist – a pediatrician trained to diagnose and treat newborns. Neonatologists, like their adult medicine counterparts, invest years in education before obtaining board certification. Unlike most physicians, they perform needed procedures and handle all aspects of their patients' care themselves.

Medical School Preparation

A career in neonatology begins with a bachelor's degree. That makes your high school years important to get into a good college. Science and math courses, a foreign language such as Spanish, extracurricular activities and good grades improve your acceptance chances. You need not major in pre-med as a college student, according to Dr. Steve Abrams, a neonatologist on the Baylor Medical School faculty. The website says medical school candidates also major in English, music and philosophy. Regardless of undergraduate major, medical school candidates need two courses in calculus, basic chemistry, organic chemistry and biology plus a course in genetics, molecular biology, microbiology and physics.

Medical School

You take the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, in your junior or senior year of college. Medical schools seek solid MCAT scores, excellent grades and a demonstrated interest in medicine evidenced by volunteer work, your interview and application essay. Once accepted, you spend the first two years studying human anatomy and other medical sciences. You must pass Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Exam, or USMLE, to continue your studies. You spend the rest of your medical school time taking clinical science courses such as internal medicine and getting patient experience through rotations. During the second half of medical school, you choose pediatrics as your specialty. You also apply for a pediatric residency program, acceptance to which requires taking and passing Step 2 of the USMLE. Although graduation earns you a medical degree, you face more exams and training to become a practicing neonatologist.

Pediatrics Residency

The three-year pediatrics residency in a hospital setting gives you hands-on experience caring for young patients under the supervision of attending physicians. In addition to lectures, a pediatrics residency includes emergency room assignments and rotations in subspecialty areas such as neonatology and pediatric cardiology. Residents usually take the USMLE Step 3 test to become licensed practicing physicians. During their final year, they apply for a fellowship to pursue their specialization in neonatology. They also take the American Board of Pediatrics exam to become board-certified pediatricians.

Neonatology Fellowship

Newly certified pediatricians then pursue a three-year fellowship in neonatal-perinatal medicine to become neonatologists. Assigned to neonatal intensive care units of accredited hospitals, they hone their clinical, diagnostic and professional skills. To earn board certification in neonatology, fellows must complete what the ABP calls "scholarly activity," or a published paper, and pass its subspecialty certifying exam. They must stay current with treatment practices and technology through continuing education. Every five years, they must demonstrate their competency through the ABP. Once a decade, neonatologists also sit for recertification exam to keep their credentials.


Trudy Brunot began writing in 1992. Her work has appeared in "Quarterly," "Pennsylvania Health & You," "Constructor" and the "Tribune-Review" newspaper. Her domestic and international experience includes human resources, advertising, marketing, product and retail management positions. She holds a master's degree in international business administration from the University of South Carolina.

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