How to Become a Maternity Nurse
A maternity nurse, also known as a labor and delivery nurse, provides care during one of the most exciting events a family can experience: the birth of a child. As a key player on the obstetrics team, the nurse remains at the patient’s side monitoring the condition of mother and baby and providing coaching and support. The work of maternity nurses helps to make delivery a safe and joyous time and ensures a healthy start to each new life.
Labor and delivery nurses care for women who are in labor, have recently delivered a baby or are experiencing pregnancy complications. They also care for newborns during the first few moments and hours of life. In many cases, these professionals follow up with new mothers to offer support with child care, breastfeeding and women’s health.
Maternity nurses are experts at assessing and monitoring patients. Throughout the labor and delivery period, they keep a close eye on the mother’s blood pressure, fetal heartbeat and other vital signs. Based on their observations, they formulate and implement individualized care plans for their patients. Where permitted by law, they also administer medications, including epidurals and drugs intended to induce labor.
Many types of nurses play a role in maternity care, including licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), nurse practitioners (NPs), clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) and certified nurse midwives (CNMs). Most work under the supervision of an obstetrician as a key member of the labor and delivery care team. Those with high-level training can function quite independently—making decisions, prescribing medications, delivering babies and even attending as the primary caregiver at home births.
Maternity nursing is a fast-paced specialty that involves a great deal of patient contact. These nurses take great pride in bringing new life into the world every day. They are proud that the care they provide helps families move past fear and anxiety to experience the excitement and joy of this special time.
As experts in the care of women and children, maternity nurses can be found in any setting that provides reproductive health services, including hospitals, schools, doctor’s offices, outpatient clinics and patients’ homes. Where permitted by law, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives may run their own practices.
The work environments and responsibilities of maternity nurses vary greatly based on certification level and training:
- LPNs tend to play a supporting role in labor and delivery settings by monitoring vital signs, assisting with procedures and performing administrative tasks.
- RNs are responsible for planning and delivering patient care in labor and delivery units, operating rooms and nurseries.
- Advanced practice nurses (NPs, CNSs and CNMs) are found in many outpatient settings, including community health centers, obstetric medical offices and private practices. Many also work as educators, policy makers and researchers.
Maternity nurses employed by hospitals typically work extended shifts that cover nights, weekends and holidays. They also spend some of their time off "on call," meaning they may be summoned to work on short notice.
Many community colleges and vocational schools offer LPN training. Programs can be completed in about a year and include both classroom and hands-on learning.
To become an RN, candidates must earn a two-year associate's degree or four-year bachelor’s degree from a state-approved institution. Training programs include courses in nursing and the life sciences as well as clinical rotations in various areas of health care.
Advanced practice nurses hold a master’s degree or doctorate as well as board certification in a nursing specialty. This career path requires 2-5 years of post-bachelor’s study at the graduate level.
Most nursing students complete clinical rotations in labor and delivery. In many cases, employers offer on-the-job training to nurses who are new to the maternity setting. This typically lasts about three months for entry-level nurses and 6-8 weeks for more experienced nurses.
Graduate programs in nursing (leading to certification as advanced practice nurses) require RN licensure and work experience in an acute care setting.
Licensing and/or Certification
Licensure of LPNs and RNs is mandatory in all states. While regulations vary, candidates must at minimum hold a degree from an approved training program and pass the NCLEX exam.
Advanced practice nurses must by board certified in a nursing specialty. Qualifying exams are administered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Maternity nurses need to be physically and emotionally resilient and possess excellent interpersonal and organizational skills. Teaching ability is an asset, as a maternity nurse must educate patients and their families. Strong critical-thinking abilities help these professionals care for adults and babies in all stages of health and illness.
Opportunities for Advancement
Experienced maternity nurses may advance to leadership positions in patient care, public health or health care administration. RNs who desire greater independence in their practice may return to school to pursue a master’s degree or doctorate. Advanced practice nurses sometimes leave the clinical setting for careers in management, research or academia or to open private practices.
LPNs typically earn between $29,000 and $56,000 depending on their experience and responsibilities.
The median annual salary for RNs is about $64,000. Earnings are usually best in large, urban hospitals and increase commensurate with education and experience.
Advance practice nurses can expect to earn $50,000 to $100,000 annually.
Employment of LPNs and RNs is expected to grow by 22% and 26% respectively between 2010 and 2020, which is considered faster than average for all occupations. Factors driving this demand include the large number of nurses expected to retire soon as well as medical advances that allow for more people to be treated.
Health care reform, with its emphasis on cost control and accessibility, is expected to create many opportunities for advanced practice nurses, as these professionals have been shown to provide safe, effective and cost-efficient care.