1. What are your average daily duties?
It all depends on your assignment. The nurse is responsible for all the bedside care - vital signs, physical assessments, diaper changes, blood draws, baths, feedings, medications, IVs, suctioning breating tubes, etc. We are at these babies' bedsides constantly.
You could have 3-4 growing/feeding preemies that get bottles or NG tube feedings every 3 hours or so. That's kind of like being on a hamster wheel - you run from baby to baby in circles all shift long. When it's time for each baby to eat, you do their vital signs and assessment, then you often have to "teach" them to eat as preemies aren't programmed to have this skill until they're almost full term. This is when you do a lot of family teaching because these kids are going home soon, and you do a lot of bathing and rocking and it's actually kinda fun if you're not TOO busy.
Or else you could have 1-2 very sick babies that need constant care. With these kids, you're dealing with multiple IVs, medications, ventilators, lab draws, off the wall vital signs, terrified parents, etc. There may be a constant flow of new orders for that baby's care so that just when you thought you had things under control, suddenly you have 10 more things to do. Here you'll give a lot of blood product transfusions, cardiac meds, antibiotics, narcotics, steroids, paralysing agents, etc. Sometimes you might have 8 or 9 different IV bags/medications going at once, and the baby might have IVs in each extremity to accommodate it all. You have to deal with breathing tubes, feeding tubes, chest tubes, IV catheters, etc. It's very scary sometimes, as these babies can be sicker than sick.
Also, in some units, you might be trained to run to high risk deliveries (any delivery where something is not normal, i.e. prematurity, emergency c-section, baby not breathing) to help recussitate newborns. You also might be trained to do ambulance or helicoptor transports, bringing babies to or from your unit. You take babies through the hospital for different tests like MRI or CT scans. When a new baby is admitted, you have to stabilize him or her and help the doctors get IV lines and breathing tubes in, things like that.
2. Are most days hectic and busy or calm and controlled?
Depends on where you work and what kind of staffing they usually have. MOST NICU nurses are pretty happy, as far as I can see. Of course you're going to have busy days and quiet days, but at least for me it's more quiet than crazy. Even when it gets crazy, people pull together and things are pretty controlled. The thing about NICUs is that they are usually pretty open layout-wise, so you are always working next to other nurses, and that helps to foster wonderful teamwork in times of crisis. Also, NICUs don't tend to have as high a turnover (quitting) rate as other units, so staffing is usually pretty good and you usually have some very experienced nurses on each shift.
3. Is working with the tiny babies so rewarding or does your heart break all the time?
Of course it's rewarding! I'd say about 10% of babies don't survive, or if they do it's with horrific problems. The other 90% do pretty well and go home. (Of course, these kids might show up with physical and intellectual handicaps down the road.) It's the best feeling to see a baby get better and go home after being so critically ill. Of course your heart breaks when a baby doesn't do well, but most of them time when that happens you know it was just nature and that the baby wasn't meant to survive. We have great medicine and technology but Mother Nature really calls the shots! The vast majority of the time you're going to feel great rewards in this field.
4. If you don't mind, what sort of salary can be expected? New grad? and experienced RN? (I'm in the midwest)
I think most hospitals in the midwest start between $20-25/hr right now. If you stay at one place long enough - meaning 20-ish years - you can reach the "ceiling" pay for RNs in that hospital - usually around $35/hr or so. Of course, nights and weekends will get you a little more money on top of your base pay.
5. What types of advacement are available (charge nurse, extra certification, masters for NNP) and how does those effect a nurse's desirablilty and income?
You can be a charge nurse or a preceptor for new nurses, but in most units not for at least a year or so because NICU is such a specialized area that you really need at least that much time to get it all under your belt. Charge nurses usually only make a buck or two per hour above their regular pay. You could always go for head nurse or assistant head nurse, but again that takes time and dedication. After a couple of years you can take the RNC exam to get certified in NICU, though some hospitals don't pay you more for this. NNP is always a possibility, but again, you'd need at least a couple of years as a staff RN to do well in that vein. Of course getting any advancement makes you a more desirable nurse.
This is only MY experience though, so other nurses might have different takes on these questions! Good luck!