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What happens at the hospital or birth centre

When to go to the hospital or birth centre

If it's your first pregnancy, you may feel unsure about when you should go into hospital or a midwifery unit. The best thing to do is to call your hospital or unit for advice.

If your waters have broken, you'll probably be asked to go in to be checked.

If it's your first baby and you're having contractions but your waters have not broken, you may be advised to wait. You'll probably be asked to come in when your contractions are:

  • regular
  • strong
  • about 5 minutes apart
  • lasting at least 60 seconds

If you do not live near your hospital, you may need to come in before you get to this stage. Make sure you know the signs of labour and what happens.

Second babies often arrive more quickly than the first, so you may need to contact the hospital, midwifery unit or midwife sooner.

Do not forget to phone the hospital or unit before leaving home, and remember to take your notes.

If you're planning a home birth, follow the procedure you have agreed with your midwife during your discussions about the onset of labour. Make sure you know the signs of labour.

What to expect at the maternity unit

Maternity units vary, whether they are in hospitals or midwifery units, so the following is just a guide to what is likely to happen.

You can talk with your midwife about what's available at your local hospital or midwifery unit, and what you would like for your birth.

Your arrival

If you carry your own notes, take them to the maternity unit admissions desk. You will be taken to the labour ward or your room, where you can change into a hospital gown or other clothes of your own.

Choose something that is loose and, ideally, made of cotton, because you'll feel hot during labour and may not want to wear anything tight.

Examination by the midwife

The midwife will ask you about what has been happening so far and will examine you, with your permission. If you're having a home birth, this examination will take place at home. The midwife will ask to: 

  • take your pulse, temperature and blood pressure, and check your urine
  • feel your abdomen to check the baby's position, and record or listen to your baby's heart
  • probably do an internal examination to find out how much your cervix has opened, so they can then tell how far your labour has progressed – tell your midwife if a contraction is coming before they perform this examination, so that they can wait until it has passed

These checks will be repeated at intervals throughout your labour. Always ask about anything you want to know.

If you and your partner have made a birth plan, show your midwife so they know what you would like to happen during labour.

Delivery rooms

Most delivery rooms have easy chairs, bean bags and mats, so you can move about in labour and change position. Some have baths, showers or birthing pools. You should feel comfortable in the room where you are giving birth.

Some maternity units may offer you a bath or shower. A warm bath can be soothing in the early stages of labour. You may like to spend much of the labour in the bath, as a way of easing the pain.

Water births

Some maternity units have birthing pools so you can go through labour in water. You may find this helps you to relax.

If labour progresses normally, it may be possible to deliver the baby in the pool. Speak to your midwife about the advantages and disadvantages of a water birth. If you want one, you'll need to make arrangements well in advance.

Read more about what happens during labour and childbirth

Page last reviewed: 30 November 2020
Next review due: 30 November 2023