Diane Goode is 46, a staff nurse at Fairfax Hospital. She works the 4 p.m. to midnight baby shift. Hers is one of five hospital nurseries. It has Pampers boxes, and rows of plastic bassinets. The other evening, Goode wore a smock with colored balloons, and a stethoscope.

Fairfax Hospital does not like baby-factory jokes, but it does run the eighth busiest obstetrical service in the country. More babies are born here than at any other hospital in the metro area. Last year, Fairfax delivered 7,787 babies, including 110 sets of twins.

The maternity ward is so crowded right now that some mothers have been moved into pediatrics. "At one point, we were having 22 babies a day," said Lon Walls, a hospital spokesman.

That has slowed down -- right?

"I think it's speeding up, actually," he said.

Where there are babies, there are visitors. At 7 p.m. each night, the nursery shades are drawn up. The nurses wheel the babies over. Faces swarm at the windows, their owners carrying tulips and Polaroids and crowding on tiptoe for a look, tapping fingers against the glass.

"Oh, Tom, she's a jewel."

"Look at his little hands."

"What a perfect mouth and, oooo -- look at her nose."

It is an aquarium kind of crowd with the faces peering in, lit by the soft and watery lights of the nursery. Mothers waddle by in their bathrobes, still holding their stomachs. Smiling grandparents stream through, with crib toys and more flowers.

"This is a popular thing," said Goode. "People just come. They might not even know any of the mothers here. They just want to look at the babies." Only a winter blizzard has the power to slow the nightly baby-watching crowd at Fairfax Hospital.

How many come? It's impossible for the nurses to say. Sometimes the halls outside the nurseries are difficult to pass through. Parents hold up numbers, as if in a grocery store, waiting their turn at the meat counter. "It's a little tough to control the babies," said Walls.

With 15 minutes to go before that evening's show-time, Goode and her nurses sped around the nursery, changing diapers, wrapping blankets. "The babies are with their moms from 5 to 6 p.m., and then it's a rush to get them cleaned up and presentable by the time the curtain goes up," she said.

That night -- like many nights -- her nursery on 3-South was filled to capacity with 18 babies. "I think we're real heavy on boys right now, although the girls have picked up a little today," she said.

The largest baby was 12 pounds, 4 ounces, and nearly bald. "That must be him right there," said Goode, peering into one bassinet at a large blanketed lump. "Oh -- that HAS to be him."

The tiniest -- or so it appeared -- were the sleeping Vietnamese twins, with hair so straight and black that it looked wet. They were identical, and scheduled to be put up for adoption by Catholic Charities.

Goode is a mother herself. Sadly, she says, her five sons are grown. The youngest is 18. "It has been a while," she said. "That's probably why I enjoy this so much. It's fun -- it's really fun. One grandfather stuck his head in the door and said, 'You shouldn't get paid for this.' "

At 7 p.m., the sound of voices from the hospital corridor filtered into the nursery. The nurses walked over, between the bassinets, and lifted the shades.

There are two viewing windows at 3-South, and the Menser family of Alexandria filled one.

Raymond Sr., the baby's great-grandfather, was there. And Lelia, the great-grandmother. Raymond, the grandfather. Edna, the grandmother. Dickie, the great-uncle.

Also, Mary Hawkins, a 14-year-old cousin. And Billy, a 16-year-old cousin. And the proud father and mother -- Gregory James, a custodian by trade, and Keena, a school bus driver.

"Look at those teeny hands."

"He looks like his father."

"What a smile.'"

The other window belonged, even if only for a few minutes, to the Holman family, there to admire Laura Kathryn Holman, born four hours earlier, named for her mother, still wearing a tiny hat to keep her head warm.

Her father, Tom, a Secret Service agent from Arlington, kept shaking his head. Her grandparents, Jeff and Margo Holman, had driven in the rain from Fredericksburg, Va., and had raincoats over their arms.

"Tom, she's a dream."

"Marvelous. Marvelous."

They lingered, tapping on the window, rehashing the birth, admiring everything from ears to fingernails.

In addition to Laura Kathryn Holman, 21 babies would be born at Fairfax Hospital that day, and hundreds would come to visit the nurseries.

"If this is a 'baby factory,' it's a compliment," said Margo Holman, finally giving up her front row seat. "Because I can tell you -- the product is fantastic."