What Do Labor and Delivery Nurses Do?

by | Jul 3, 2018 | Nursing Jobs & Interviews | 1 comment

If you’re considering working in the labor and delivery department as a nurse, and want to learn more about what their day-to-day really looks like, join our guest author, Brianna Babienco BS, RN, RNC-OB as she explains what labor and delivery nurses do!

What Do Labor and Delivery Nurses Do?

Labor and Delivery Quick Definitions

Working as an L&D nurse can mean working in various departments that are similar, but have major differences. Not all hospitals will have all of these departments, but it’s helpful to know the difference, as Brianna will mention a few of these in her post.

Labor and Delivery Unit

This is a specialized area within a hospital where women give birth to babies. The unit is staffed by healthcare professionals who specialize in obstetrics and gynecology and is equipped with specialized equipment and facilities for childbirth. The labor and delivery unit may also provide prenatal care, monitoring, and postpartum care for new mothers and their babies.


This refers to the period of time during pregnancy before the onset of labor. Antepartum care focuses on monitoring the health of both the mother and the developing fetus, including routine check-ups, prenatal testing, and interventions to manage any complications or risks that may arise during pregnancy.

L&D Operating Room

This is a specialized surgical suite within the labor and delivery unit of a hospital where obstetrical surgeries are performed. These surgeries may include cesarean sections, fetal surgeries, or other procedures that require specialized medical equipment and personnel. This is NOT the same operating room as the rest of the hospital. This OR is located very close to the labor and delivery rooms so that if an emergent surgery is required, it can be initiated as fast as possible.

Mother-Baby or Postpartum

This is a hospital unit where new mothers and their babies receive postpartum care following delivery. The unit is staffed by healthcare professionals who specialize in postpartum care, including lactation consultants, nurses, and doctors. Postpartum care may include monitoring of the mother’s physical and emotional recovery, newborn assessments, breastfeeding support, and education on newborn care.

High-risk OB

This refers to the specialized care provided to women who are at increased risk for complications during pregnancy or delivery. High-risk OB care may involve close monitoring of the mother and fetus, advanced testing and interventions, and specialized medical equipment and procedures. Women who may be considered high-risk include those with pre-existing medical conditions, multiple gestations, or a history of pregnancy complications.

NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit)

This is a specialized unit within a hospital that provides care to critically ill or premature newborn infants. The NICU is staffed by healthcare professionals who specialize in neonatal care and is equipped with specialized medical equipment and facilities to provide intensive care to these fragile infants. The care provided in the NICU may include respiratory support, IV therapy, feeding support, and monitoring of vital signs. The goal of the NICU is to provide the best possible care to these vulnerable infants and help them grow and develop to their full potential.

What Does a Typical Day Look Like for Labor and Delivery Nurses?

Your day is different every single time you walk into work.  In Labor and Delivery, you could be assigned to an OR case, an antepartum patient, or a woman in labor.  Job assignments are not cut and dry. They are dynamic and always changing.

A “slow” (Shhh!!) morning could instantly turn into riding on the gurney with your patient, heading straight for the OR.  Why are you on the gurney? Well, your stable antepartum patient’s water just broke and the umbilical cord slipped into the vaginal canal causing fetal distress.

In these situations, an emergency cesarean is the only resolution.  It is the nurse’s responsibility to place their hand in just the perfect position inside the vagina so the baby doesn’t compress the cord, which could cause a lack of oxygen to the baby.  As the decompressor of the cord, you’ll probably be draped in the OR along with the patient because your hand will be inside the patient until the baby is delivered. You might even get to give the doctor a handshake from inside after they get the baby out!  Talk about a rush!

If you followed that patient until they went to the postpartum unit, you’ve had an antepartum patient, an OR case, AND a recovery room experience in the span of a few hours.  Talk about a whirlwind!

Since there are so many aspects to Labor and Delivery nursing, I’ll discuss each type of patient and what a day would look like with them!

Labor and Delivery Triage

If you love the Emergency Department (ED), you might give Labor and Delivery a try.  The labor unit is usually independent of the rest of the hospital, meaning they run their own triage like a mini ED.  Unlike other units where admits come straight from the ED, pregnant patients typically bypass the ED and go to Labor and Delivery triage instead.

Any medical or surgical complaint in pregnancy is evaluated by Labor and Delivery triage.  Whether it’s appendicitis, vomiting, headache, dizziness, contractions… it all is taken care of in Labor and Delivery triage.  If a woman is admitted for labor, they head to a labor room. If someone has appendicitis they might go to an antepartum room for further evaluation.

Once a patient is assigned to you in triage, you immediately assess how far along your patient is in her pregnancy and if you have a viable baby.  If the baby is viable, you’ll put on a Toco (which monitors contractions) and a Sono (to monitor fetal heart rate). Typically, this is your number one priority and done before continuing your assessment.

Why is this monitoring a priority?  

If you have a baby with a low heart rate, you could be running to the OR minutes after saying hello.  I’ve gone from introducing myself to delivering the baby via emergency cesarean section in 6 minutes flat!  That’s how fast things move in Labor and Delivery.

It’s a good day when a triage patient complains of contractions with no other medical problems.  If you check her cervix and it’s dilated more than 4-5 cm, she’s just bought a ticket to a labor room!

Care of the Laboring Mom

Taking care of a laboring patient can best be described by going through a typical shift change report, or nursing handoff.  The great thing about Labor and Delivery is the majority of your patients are healthy, so report often does not involve complicated medical problems.

The most pertinent things you’ll ask during a patient report are as follows.

G’s and P’s (Gravida and Para)

Gravida is how many times the patient has been pregnant, and Para is how many times she has given birth.  For instance, if you have a G10P8 (a history of 10 pregnancies with 8 births), you’ll be aware that the baby could come FAST with little to no pushing.  With this history, it’s ideal to have the doctor close by! It’s always best if the baby is born with the doctor, not mom sneezing it onto the bed!

Obstetric History

Has the patient had a cesarean section in the past?  Does she have a history of precipitous labor, placenta previa or pre-eclampsia?  These are all things that will shape the plan of care for the patient.


It’s rare that a laboring patient will have scheduled medications like Colace. Many times medications on Labor and Delivery are given unscheduled or as needed.  These include pain medication, nausea/vomiting medications… etc.

One medication unique to Labor and Delivery is Pitocin.  Pitocin (a medication used for labor inductions) is used to increase the strength and frequency of contractions.  This medication is titrated by the nurse until an adequate labor pattern is achieved.

Fetal Status

Fetal monitoring is unique to Labor and Delivery.  Nurses take multiple classes on how to accurately interpret fetal heart rate patterns.  Accurate interpretation is imperative to proper care. For instance, if there is a dip in the fetal heart rate, the nurse needs to assess whether the baby’s head is being compressed, if the cord is getting pinched, or if the placenta is not working properly.  Each of these scenarios has different interventions, which is why the nurse needs to know how to act appropriately. At the bottom of this article, there are some resources if you’re interested in learning more about fetal monitoring!

Once you get the report, it’s time to assess your patient.  As I mentioned earlier, the majority of your patients aren’t sick.  Most of them are in labor, which makes an assessment fairly easy.

Unique nursing assessments in Labor and Delivery include palpating the abdomen for the contraction strength, checking contraction frequency, assessing the baby’s heart rate, and performing vaginal exams to assess cervical dilation.  In many hospitals, nurses perform all assessments and notify the doctor of progress. When it’s time to push, the nurse will assist the patient until it’s time for the doctor to perform the delivery.

Vaginal Delivery

After pushing for a while with the patient, the physician or midwife will arrive for the baby’s delivery.  The nurse is responsible to support the mother as she pushes her baby into the world. During this time, the nurse also cleans the perineum, prepares the delivery cart (which holds tools the physician might need), and retrieves warm blankets for the baby’s arrival.

Once the baby is born, he or she is placed on the mother’s chest as the nurse dries the baby with warm blankets.  At 1 minute and 5 minutes after birth, the nurse will be in charge of assigning an APGAR score, which is an assessment of the baby’s status.  An APGAR score includes the baby’s heart rate (which is obtained from the umbilical cord), breathing, color, muscle tone, and reflexes.

After delivery, the nurse continues to monitor vital signs on mother and baby, measure the baby’s weight and length, give the baby medications, and assess the mother’s bleeding. If mother and baby are both stable, the nurse transitions them to the postpartum unit about 1.5-2 hours after birth.

Cesarean Section

In the case that labor doesn’t lead to a vaginal delivery, an emergency or scheduled cesarean section is needed.  During a cesarean section, the nurse will assist in the Operating Room (OR). In the OR, the nurse acts as the circulating nurse.  Duties include placing an indwelling urinary catheter, completing surgical prep, performing instrument counts, and answering the physician’s pages.  Once the baby is delivered, you’ll have another nurse present. One nurse will assess the baby, determine APGAR scores, and assist with skin to skin; the other nurse will continue taking care of the mother until the surgery is complete.

On the units I’ve worked, Labor and Delivery nurses also perform recovery after surgery.  During recovery, the nurse will be exclusively with the patient and the newborn for about two hours.  Along with administering medications, the nurse checks the patient’s fundus (the uterus) to make sure it remains firm and assesses the amount of bleeding every 15 minutes.

The ideal recovery patient will have had a spinal (a type of medication administration).  With a spinal, the mom’s pain will be well controlled. If the patient was laboring with an epidural prior to delivery, the anesthesia staff can also dose it to use in the OR for a cesarean section.

Unfortunately, if your patient had an emergency surgery without an epidural, the patient will likely have general anesthesia, making the pain more difficult to control.  In this case, the nurse will be busy administering medications during the recovery period.

What Totally Sucks About Working as a Labor and Delivery Nurse

Although Labor and Delivery is usually the happiest floor in the hospital, 1% of the time it is sad… really really sad.  No one ever wants to hear the words “you’ve lost your baby.”  When a baby passes away in the womb, it is called a fetal demise.  These patients deliver in the same way as other patients. However, the nurses have additional things to include in the plan of care.

Once the baby is born, nurses allow patients to grieve in whatever way they choose.  If they want to hold the baby for hours… that’s okay. This is their time. To make special memories, we often call services like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep to take pictures of the baby and family.  In addition to pictures, the nurses will do footprints, hand molds, and any other special things the family requests.

Even though it’s heartbreaking, it’s very special to be allowed the privilege to support a family during such an emotionally difficult time.  I’ve even had the beautiful experience of supporting a family through a loss, and a year later, celebrating as they met their next child.

What’s Great About Being a Labor and Delivery Nurse

I could go on all day about why I would never work anywhere else in the hospital!  I LOVE birth. It’s so raw, natural, and beautiful. So, here are my top three reasons why I love working Labor and Delivery:

#1- The working relationship between the nurses and the doctors

Even though nurses and doctors have very different skills and roles, there is a collaboration between these two professions.  The role of a nurse is more of a partnership with the doctors, making for a fulfilling work environment.

#2 – Diversity in the job

Nurses participate in a wide variety of areas, such as triage, OR, recovery, and labor.  I know that every day I walk on the floor is going to be different. I love the variety that Labor and Delivery offers.

#3 – Every labor story is different

As the nurse, I get to be a part of a family’s unique birth story. Being in the room when a family meets their baby for the first time is such a privilege.  So, I try to make each patient feel special. It is so rewarding to witness the excitement of a family welcoming a new baby!

So, You Want To Be a Labor and Delivery Nurse?

Is the prospect of being a Labor and Delivery Nurse exciting to you?  If so, check out some of these resources that can help launch your career as a Labor and Delivery nurse!

(And make sure you check out our resources to help you land the job: A nurse resume template 3-pack, interview question worksheet, and comprehensive course.)

Labor and Delivery Resources

In “Baby Land,” we have a lot of unique procedures and verbiage that you won’t hear on any other floor in the hospital.  You can check out my Labor and Delivery vocab and a list of procedures unique to Labor and Delivery.

Perhaps one of the more difficult areas to master in Labor and Delivery is reading fetal heart tracings.  If you’re interested to learn more about heart tracings, I suggest checking out this site.  This site is an awesome resource that teaches you the basics of fetal heart monitoring.

Lastly, AWHONN and AGOG are the go-to locations for up-to-date information on the field of obstetrics.  You’ll find the latest recommendations and research through these organizations.

I hope that this article sparks your curiosity into learning more about Labor and Delivery nursing.  I am so excited to say that I have found my nursing passion for Labor and Delivery. Who knows… maybe it’s for you too!

What do Labor and Delivery Nurses do? This guest post looks at why Labor and Delivery nurses work in the happiest place in the hospital.

Brianna Babienco, BS, RN, RNC-OB has been a nurse since 2012 and has experience as both a nurse and clinical instructor in Labor and Delivery.

Outside of work, Brianna is a wife and mother of two beautiful children.  She enjoys swing dancing, scuba diving, and going on game shows. (She is a winner of the Price is Right and Let’s Make a Deal!)

Are you done with the guess-work of applying and interviewing for nursing jobs?

hired: the ultimate guide to nurse resumes and interviews course cover

Hired from FreshRN is a self-paced, online course for ambitious nurses who want to be the ideal candidate for their dream job. Amber Nibling, MSN RN-BC, and Kati Kleber, MSN RN have interviewed hundreds of nurse applicants and they give you the inside scoop of what interviewers are thinking. Learn everything you need to know to impress potential employers (and yourself) by learning what the hiring team expects from you, so you can not only meet, but exceed those expectations.

All links on this site may be affiliate links and should be considered as such. FreshRN is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. See our privacy policy for more information.
Picture of Kati Kleber, founder of FRESHRN

Hi, I’m Kati.

Kati Kleber, MSN RN is a nurse educator, author, national speaker, host of the FreshRN® Podcast, and owner of FreshRN® – an online platform created to educate, encourage, and motivate newly licensed nurses in innovative ways.

Connect with her on YouTube, Pinterest, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, and sign-up for her free email newsletter for new nurses.

1 Comment

  1. Chloe

    Wow, this post is really encouraging and informative! I’m a USD nursing student who’ll graduate this December. I’ve been so drawn to this unit yet somewhat hesitant to fully pursue this specialty after school because of the negative things I’ve heard from others about it. This post really helped my mindset and it only inspires me to strive for this hard and also wonderful specialty I’ve been so passionate about. Thank you for the encouragement!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.