What It Takes to Be a Pediatric Nurse

Pediatric nurses provide care with a soft touch for kids of all ages.

nurse with young patient holding teddy bear
pediatric nurse with patient

The Basics

What you’ll do: Care for children, from newborns to teens. Depending on where you work, you could provide preventive care or specialty for care for children who are seriously ill or have medical conditions.

Where you’ll work: Hospitals, including dedicated children’s hospitals, outpatient clinics, schools, and more

Degree you’ll need: An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Median annual salary: $75,330

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Pediatric nurses work with patients who haven’t reached adulthood—from newborns to teenagers. While it can be rewarding to work with this age group, it can require extra patience and understanding since children can view healthcare situations as intimidating.

Steps to Become a Pediatric Nurse

Qualifying to work as a pediatric nurse requires education, training, and licensure. These steps can guide you on your journey.

1. Determine what education you’ll need:

You can be a pediatric nurse with an associate or bachelor’s degree. While it’s quicker to get an associate degree, you may find more job opportunities with a bachelor’s degree.

2. Graduate from an accredited program:

A high-quality program will be accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

3. Get licensed as a registered nurse (RN):

As you near graduation, you’ll want to register for the NCLEX-RN exam, a national exam that you must pass to qualify for an RN license. These licenses are issued by individual states.

4. Gain experience in pediatric nursing:

There are many ways to get experience in pediatric nursing, including doing clinical hours in pediatrics as part of your degree or volunteering in the community.

5. Earn certification as a pediatric nurse:

Take your education further by getting a certification like the Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN) credential. Certification demonstrates knowledge and expertise and shows your commitment to a field or specialty.

What Is a Pediatric Nurse and What Do They Do?

Pediatric nurses do more than care for their patients. They often play a crucial role in ensuring that children have a positive healthcare experience.

“The greatest part about being in pediatric nursing is that it becomes more than just a job—kids depend on your compassion to get through the ‘scary things,’ and you need finesse to play by their rules to get the job done,” said Christian Leon, RN, BSN, who works as a pediatric nurse at a children’s hospital in Utah. “Children bounce back so quickly and it is the most rewarding part of my day to see a kid leave with a smile on their face.”

Pediatric nurses do more than care for their patients. They often play a crucial role in ensuring that children have a positive healthcare experience.

Depending on where they work, pediatric nurses can have a wide variety of responsibilities. Some of their most common duties include:

  • Evaluating and documenting patient symptoms
  • Checking vital signs
  • Completing diagnostic tests
  • Administering medication
  • Performing minor procedures like drawing blood or giving vaccinations
  • Educating parents about a child’s injury and treatment

Skills and Traits of a Successful Pediatric Nurse

These skills and traits can help you shine in this field.

Communication: Pediatric nurses need to communicate with patients in a way that makes them feel safe. They also need to have effective communication skills to discuss the concerns of parents.

Creativity: Sometimes pediatric nurses need to be creative to engage with their patients, especially younger ones. “Hospitals can sometimes be boring, so being creative (in addressing) their specific needs can go a long way,” says Leon. “One time I played a game of Uno with a patient to gain their trust; then they let me do vital signs and a physical assessment.”

Time Management: Nurses need to be able to juggle patient care and administrative tasks to work efficiently. This can be especially true for pediatric nurses. “Kids play by their own rules, so you need to be able to manage time well for whatever they throw at you,” says Leon.

Problem Solving: Pediatric nurses will often need to identify health problems and then start care. Excellent problem-solving skills can help you succeed and add to patient safety.

Compassion: A big dose of compassion is sometimes the best care a pediatric nurse can provide. “To kids, this could very well be the scariest thing they have had to deal with,” says Leon. Being able to sympathize with what a patient is experiencing will help the visit go more smoothly.

Where You’ll Work

Pediatric nurses can work in a variety of settings, and duties can vary from workplace to workplace.  Some of these places:

  • Hospitals: Pediatric nurses work in dedicated children’s hospitals or in pediatrics departments within a hospital. They also work with children in ICUs and oncology departments.
  • Physicians’ Offices: A pediatric nurse in a physician’s office may be responsible for conducting a child’s initial health assessment, updating electronic patient records, and obtaining samples for medical tests.
  • Community Clinics: Pediatric nurses who work in a community clinic can expect responsibilities similar to those in a physician’s office.
  • Surgical Centers: Pediatric nurses who specialize in surgery can be found in these centers. They will need special certification to assist with operations.
  • Schools: Schools typically employ pediatric nurses to care for students who are sick and compile student and staff records for immunizations, visual testing, and other health matters.

Education to Become a Pediatric Nurse

There are two paths for formal education to become a nurse: an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). While you can start your pediatric nursing career sooner with an associate degree, some employers require nursing candidates to have a bachelor’s degree.

It may be worthwhile to take the time to earn a bachelor’s degree to open more job opportunities.

Associate Degree in Nursing

  • Prerequisites: You’ll need a high school diploma or a GED to enter an associate program. Some ADN programs don’t have coursework prerequisites, while others will require anatomy and physiology for admission.
  • Core Curriculum: Expect coursework in pharmacology, the essentials of nursing, psychology, and nursing care for a variety of patients.
  • Clinical Requirements: Students will gain hands-on skills at simulation centers run by their program and by doing supervised clinical work in a healthcare setting. Time requirements can vary, but a student can expect to complete as many as 435 clinical hours.
  • Time to Complete: An ADN can be completed in 18-24 months, depending on how much time you can dedicate to school.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

  • Prerequisites: You’ll need a high school diploma or a GED, plus coursework in chemistry, microbiology, anatomy, and physiology.
  • Core Curriculum: Students will take advanced courses covering health assessments, research, management, and care competencies and skills.
  • Clinical Requirements: Clinical curriculum can include clinical rotations, labs, and simulation work. Requirements will vary with each program, but students can expect to train in a variety of clinical settings for 700 to 800 hours.
  • Time to Complete: A BSN typically takes four years to complete.

Online Programs

There are hybrid nursing programs available. Some offer coursework online, which makes it convenient for students who can’t attend on-campus classes and need flexibility. Clinical rotations will still need to be completed in person under the supervision of an experienced nurse who can ensure that tasks and procedures are being performed properly.

However, if you’re already a registered nurse (RN) with clinical experience and want to earn a bachelor’s degree, you might find some programs that are entirely online.

What to Look for in a School

Here are a few factors to consider when choosing a school:

  • School and Program Accreditation: Look for programs that have accreditation from the ACEN or CCNE. Accreditation means a school and program have met the standards of a quality education.  
  • Job Placement and Career Counseling: Some schools offer these services, which could be valuable as you look for your first job.
  • Pass Rate for National Nursing Exam: Passing this exam, the NCLEX-RN, is key to getting a state license to practice nursing. You’ll want to know the first-time pass rate for students who took the exam in the most recent academic year: A high first-time pass rate could indicate a strong nursing program.
  • Graduate Success: A high percentage of students from the most recent graduating class who have jobs as nurses may indicate how well employers regard a program and its graduates.

Licensure

It’s not enough to simply get a degree in nursing. Students must also obtain a license before they can practice. To be licensed, all prospective nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN).

The NCLEX-RN is a computerized test that’s tailored to each student by basing questions on the test taker’s answer to the previous question. The test personalizes how many questions you’ll answer based on your performance, with a range of 74-145 questions.

You’ll have up to five hours to answer questions, which will focus on:

  • Safe and effective care environments
  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Psychosocial integrity, care that supports the emotional and mental wellbeing of a patient under stress
  • Physiological integrity, care that adequately meets the everyday activities of a patient

It’s not enough to simply get a degree in nursing. Students must also obtain a license before they can practice.

Your degree program will most likely provide you with resources to prepare for the NCLEX-RN, so be sure to check for study materials.

Once you have passed the NCLEX-RN, you can apply to your state nursing board for a license. State requirements vary, but you may need to provide fingerprints or undergo a background check.

Gain Experience

With your nursing license in hand, you can start looking for positions as a pediatric nurse. You may be able to use any pediatric clinical rotations you completed in college to show you’re qualified to work with children.

Once you gain professional experience, you can qualify to earn a certification as a pediatric nurse.

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Certifications

Earning a pediatric certification has several benefits:

  • Professional recognition of your expertise and knowledge: Prospective employers looking for highly qualified pediatric nurses may expect candidates to be certified.
  • Higher salary: Nurses with specialized training may earn more because of their valuable skills.
  • Career advancement: You may find more job opportunities with a pediatric certification.

“Certification is valuable in terms of demonstrating knowledge,” says Leon. “It does help during the interview process and gives you priority over other applicants.”

Here are three common certifications for pediatric nurses.

Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN)

  • What it Is: This is the most common certification for pediatric nurses, and it’s offered by the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB).
  • Who it’s For: All pediatric nurses can qualify for this certification, including those who work in home care, public health, schools, outpatient clinics, and hospitals.
  • Requirements: Candidates must have an RN license and a minimum of 1,800 hours as an RN in a pediatric nursing specialty within the past 24 months, or a minimum of five years as an RN in pediatric nursing and 3,000 hours in pediatric nursing within the last 5 years.
  • Exam Prep: The exam is a three-hour, computer-based exam with 175 multiple-choice questions. Topics covered include assessment, health promotion, management, and clinical problems. The PNCB has prep resources online.

Pediatric Nursing Certification (PED-BC)

  • What it Is: Certification for registered nurses who want to demonstrate entry-level clinical knowledge and skills in pediatrics. It’s offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).
  • Who it’s For: Nurses with experience in pediatric nursing who are ready to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise in the specialty.
  • Requirements: Candidates must have practiced the equivalent of two years full time as a registered nurse with a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in pediatrics within the last three years and have completed 30 hours of continuing education in pediatric nursing within the last three years.
  • Exam Prep: The exam is a three-hour, computer-based test with 150 questions that cover assessment and diagnosis, planning and implementation, and evaluation. Prep resources are available online.

Critical Care Registered Nurse Pediatric (CCRN)

  • What it Is: The CCRN (Pediatric) certification is for nurses who work with acutely and critically ill children. It’s offered by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACCN).
  • Who it’s For: This certification is for pediatric nurses who work in intensive care units, cardiac care units, trauma units, or critical care transport.
  • Requirements: Applicants must have an RN or APRN license and clinical experience that ranges from 1,750-2,000 hours in the past 2-5 years.
  • Exam Prep: The three-hour exam includes 150 questions about clinical judgment, professional caring, and ethical practice. It can be taken on paper or computer. The AACCN offers study aids on its website.

Subspecialty Certifications for Pediatric Nurses

Some pediatric nurses specialize even further out of personal interest or for more job opportunities. Some of the most popular subspecialty certifications include:

  • CPON: Certified Pediatric Oncology Nurse
  • CHPPN: Certified Hospice and Palliative Pediatric Nurse
  • CPEN: Certified Pediatric Emergency Nurse
  • CPHON: Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse
  • RNC-NIC: Registered Nurse Certification-Neonatal Intensive Care

Salary and Career Outlook

Registered nurses earn a median annual salary of $75,330, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS doesn’t break out nursing specialties but earning a bachelor’s degree and a specialty certification may lead to a higher salary.

The top 10% of RNs earn more than $116,230, while the bottom 10% earn less than $53,410.

Median Annual Salary for RNs (2020 data)

$75,330

Top-Paying Metropolitan Areas for Nurses

California takes all 10 spots for the highest-paying metro areas for nurses. A combination of a high cost of living, a strong nursing union, and a minimum nurse-to-patient ratio have led to high salaries for nurses in the state, according to BLS data.

Metropolitan AreaMedian Annual Wage
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California$155,980
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California$155,170
Vallejo-Fairfield, California$150,850
Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, California$137,040
Salinas, California$132,650
Santa Rosa, California$119,700
Napa, California$116,260
Redding, California$115,880
Stockton-Lodi, California$115,100
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California$113,370

States with the Most Nurses

Nurses are in demand nationwide, but some states employ more nurses, partly because of the size of their populations.

States with the Highest Number of Nurses

StateEmployment
California307,060
Texas219,330
Florida183,130
New York178,550
Pennsylvania146,640
Ohio129,090
Illinois127,450
North Carolina99,110
Michigan97,820
Massachusetts84,030

States with the Lowest Number of Nurses

StateEmployment
Idaho12,800
Rhode Island12,150
Delaware11,410
Hawaii11,260
District of Columbia10,320
Montana9,980
North Dakota9,970
Vermont6,810
Alaska6,240
Wyoming5,010

Job Outlook

The number of jobs for RNs is expected to grow by 9% from 2020 to 2030 due to an aging population with more healthcare needs, according to the BLS.

While overall job prospects are good, the BLS says RNs with a BSN degree and certifications may have a better chance of landing sought-after positions.

9%

Expected Job Growth for RNs from 2020 to 2030

Professional Resources

Joining or following a professional organization can help pediatric nurses learn about trends in their field and stay on top of the latest medical research.

Some resources pediatric nurses may want to consider following include:

  • Society of Pediatric Nurses (SPN): SPN has annual conferences that are excellent opportunities to network and learn about the profession. Becoming an SPN member will give you access to free continuing education credits, webinars, and the latest news about the field. You can also follow the group on Facebook.
  • National Association of School Nurses (NASN): Connect with other school nurses through NASN’s annual conferences, online forums, peer-reviewed journals, and continuing education.
  • Twitter: Nurses are very active on Twitter. You can follow @PedNursing for the latest news on pediatric care.
  • Podcasts: There are a lot of pediatric nurse podcasts, including TeamPeds Talks.

sara nguyen

Written and reported by:

Sara Nguyen

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

Christian Leon, RN, BSN

Pediatric Nurse