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A neonatal doctor is a type of physician that specializes in the care of infants. If a child is born too early, born with an illness, or develops a medical problem in infancy, a neonatal doctor is likely to serve as a specialist on the case. Becoming a neonatal doctor takes several years of specialization beyond normal medical training. Many of these doctors specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and medical conditions related to premature birth or congenital abnormalities.
Infants are extremely delicate and vulnerable; it takes skilled and steady hands to be able to correctly diagnose, treat, or operate on very young babies. In addition to completing medical school, internships, and a residency period, a neonatal doctor will usually spend two or three years as a fellow studying neonatal treatment before becoming fully certified. Toward the end of each of these training periods, most doctors must take rigorous exams in order to move to the next level. Altogether, training for a neonatal doctor can take about ten years, following a regular undergraduate degree.
Most neonatologists work in hospitals, usually centering their practice around a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This is the area of a hospital where premature or sick infants receive care, and typically neonatologists are the main doctors that oversee the area. A neonatal doctor may be called in to consult when an ultrasound or other diagnostic method shows signs that a growing fetus may be developing problems, if a baby is born prematurely or with complications, or if an infant develops an illness or medical problem shortly after birth.
Some neonatal doctors specialize in neonatal surgery. Operations performed on infants are extremely difficult, since babies are so small and vulnerable to shock and other conditions. Some of the surgeries a neonatal surgeon may perform include the separation of conjoined twins, removal of cysts and obstructions, and the reparation of heart defects. The development of most surgical conditions in infants is very rare, but having qualified surgeons available can change a seemingly hopeless situation into a complete success in many instances.
A neonatal doctor may choose to work at a university or teaching hospital. This means that, in addition to regular duties, he or she may be in charge of supervising medical interns and residents and even teaching students in medical school. Learning from a good neonatal doctor can set a new generation of physicians on the path to this specialty. Having the opportunity to explain procedures and explore the capabilities of the medical field with younger students is seen as an incredibly rewarding experience by some doctors.
The neonatal specialty is becoming more popular and necessary, as more hospitals open NICU wings and start treating high-risk pregnancies and very premature babies.
Seems like when I was a teenager, you heard of micro-preemies being taken to the "big" teaching hospital miles away. They were never treated close by. But this is changing. Many more hospitals have a NICU and several neonatal doctors on staff. Twenty or thirty years ago, there might be just one or two of these doctors in an entire state. Medicine has changed.