For Carol Burwell, part of being a registered nurse is demonstrating each day how to wash a baby's face.

"Take the corner of the cloth and wipe away from the eye," Burwell, 32, told a new mother recently at Providence Hospital's maternity ward, taking off her own eyeglasses and dabbing the corner of one eye with a wet cloth. "Now you try it."

Cordell Pinckney held her 4-day-old son Lawrence in one arm, as Burwell had shown her earlier, and gingerly washed his tiny face with the other hand.

"Very good," said Burwell. "You did it like a pro."

Last week, May 5 to 11, was proclaimed "Nurses Recognition Week" by Mayor Marion Barry to honor the work of the District's 12,000 registered nurses such as Burwell, for their commitment "to providing quality health care to all people."

The week included "National Nurses Day" (May 6), proclaimed by the American Nurses Association. Throughout the week, hospitals and health organizations sponsored special programs in honor of registered nurses. The District of Columbia Nurses' Association named as "Nurse of the Year" Mae Johnson, a certified psychiatric mental health nurse at St. Elizabeths's Hospital.

Nationally there were 1.4 million registered nurses and 416,000 licensed practical nurses employed in 1984, more than half of all the people in the health profession, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About two-thirds of all nurses work in hospitals, and salaries for staff nurses range from $14,544 to $39,519, according to a 1984 survey by the National Association of Nurse Recruiters.

Nurses organizations are fighting for salary increases, claiming that members of the profession, 97 percent of whom are women, are underpaid compared to men performing jobs of comparable worth.

Generally there has been a shortage of nurses, but a change in federal regulations is altering this. The government has revised its rules on how much it will pay for Medicare patients, and that has translated into "a decrease in the length of a hospital stay and the number of people going into the hospital," said Evelyn Sommers, executive director of the D.C. Nurses Association.

"That has meant some layoffs for nurses, something practically unheard of," she said.

But the loss of jobs should be temporary because, she explained, with an aging population " . . . we are projecting a tremendous increase in the demand for nurses, especially in areas such as intensive care and operating room nurses."

Meanwhile, Burwell, who has worked in the Providence nursery in upper Northeast Washington for five years, is just enjoying the moment, a time when there is an emphasis in her profession on instructing the family. "I always wanted to be a nurse," said the Capitol Heights, Md., resident, whose mother was a secretary and whose father worked first as a police officer and then as a housing inspector.

"I have a real respect for life in general and a special place in my heart for children and the family," said Burwell, who attributes this to being "raised in a very close, supportive family."

Dressed in baby-blue pants, blue flowered jacket and soft-white loafers, she not only gives baby-bathing instructions but also offers new parents films and information on the characteristics of newborns, techniques of breast-feeding and bottle feeding, and child care in general.

"Carol has the attitude that nothing is too small to explain," said Pinckney, the new mother. "If you don't understand something, no matter what, she'll explain it over and over. You feel that she really wants you to understand."

Burwell said that once she was sidetracked temporarily, thinking of becoming a teacher and majoring in education for two years at Frostburg State College. But in 1976, after completing studies at the old Washington Hospital Center School of Nursing, she became a registered nurse.

Her first job was as a medical surgical nurse at Doctor's Hospital in Prince George's County. She worked at Howard University Hospital's psychiatry department for six months, then seven years ago moved to the Providence psychiatry department and later to nursery.

Now she is one of two registered nurses working the 3-to-11:30 p.m. shift in the maternity ward, where there usually are from 14 to 18 infants. In a typical month, she cares for 100 babies. After getting an update on each baby's condition from her morning counterpart, she checks vital signs, takes temperatures, instructs parents, changes diapers and fills bottles.

She also throws in few extras.

"Sometimes we give the babies new hairdos, a little part in their hair or some little do-dads," Burwell said, fingering a curl on one baby's head. "The mommies and the daddies really appreciate it."