Reflective learning is the rational analytical process utilised to develop knowledge from experience. This approach to learning is important in post-basic clinical nursing education for both theoretical and clinical competence. A qualitative, non-empirical study was conducted to develop a model for educating reflective neonatal nurses in a South African context. Phase 1 of the study entailed the identification and clarification of concepts related to neonatal nursing education in this context. The article reports on the concept of reflective learning in neonatal critical care nursing education within this context. The concepts 'reflection', 'reflective learning', 'reflective thinking' and 'reflective reasoning' were clarified through a process of data exploration and analysis. A definition of reflective learning was developed through deductive and inductive reasoning, and reflective learning and the different approaches used to facilitate learning was described. The findings of the study show that reflective learning in higher education (nursing education) contributes to the development from a novice to a competent professional and from a competent professional to an expert and change agent. Using reflective learning to address the critical outcome of education of neonatal nurses creates an opportunity to prepare these nurses for their high risk role in caring for critically ill neonates. Neonatal reflective nurses provide patient-specific care according to the unique needs of the neonate, using a process of reflection that involves analysing and interpreting cues, weighing the evidence and only then making appropriate clinical decisions. By having the ability to reflect about patients, and about themselves and their experiences, nurses in high-risk environments are able to improve practice, adapt to different social contexts and take control of the professional practice.