Labour – when to go to hospital and what to expect

With just a few weeks left until your due date, you’re likely to have more than a few things on your mind. Thoughts such as, will my home be ready for the baby? Have I bought enough nappies and wet wipes? When will these feelings of tiredness finally subside?

But perhaps taking centre stage among all these thoughts is how exactly the big day, when it eventually arrives, is going to pan out; and first and foremost how will you know when it’s time to go to the hospital?

After all, there is such a thing as false labour, and it’s entirely possible for pregnant women to turn up to the hospital believing they’re about to have a baby only to be told it’s a false alarm.

When it’s time to go

No one can blame a mother for being anxious about whether or not she’s in labour because when you’re experiencing all the signs of early, or latent, labour, it can be difficult to know the optimum point at which to head to the hospital.

Early labour can last up to a few days and won’t cause you much discomfort; it’s possible to spend most of it just going about your daily routine as you wait for your cervix to gradually dilate to 3cm (which is when you enter what is known as established labour – the stage at which you should go to the hospital).

During this time, you could perhaps try going for a walk to help your labour progress or have a relaxing bath and practise some deep breathing techniques. It’s a good idea to get some rest and have something healthy to eat and drink at this point as you’ll want to make sure you’ve got good energy levels for when you enter the later stages of labour.

Your waters may break and you may lose your mucus plug (the seal that covers your cervix) which is also known as ‘a show’, but this still doesn’t necessarily mean you’re about to enter established labour (although remember that you must call your midwife for an examination if your waters break before you go into labour, as there is a risk of infection).

The strongest indication that you are in established labour is the strength and frequency of your contractions. You should contact your midwife or labour ward when you are experiencing contractions at a rate of around three in every ten minutes.

If the contractions are very painful and you can no longer talk whilst having one, you should think about making your way to hospital.

There are also some other circumstances in which you should contact the hospital as soon as possible:

  • Your baby’s movements have slowed down
  • You are bleeding
  • You have any other concerns about the labour process or what’s happening to your body and you want advice from a medical professional.

What to expect at the maternity ward

Hopefully, you will have visited the labour ward and delivery suite as part of your antenatal classes or appointments, but if you haven’t yet been able to see where you are likely to give birth, it can, at the very least, help to know what is likely to happen to you once you get to the hospital or maternity unit.

Of course, each hospital and medical team will have their own way of caring for women in labour, but the following is a rough guide as to what will happen. Your midwife can give you further information on how things are done at your local hospital.

Unless the baby’s birth is imminent, you will initially be taken to the labour ward where you can change into a hospital gown or comfortable clothes of your own. Make sure you bring your antenatal notes and, if you’ve made one, your birth plan. You’ll need to give these to the midwifery team on duty.

A midwife will then carry out an initial examination to determine how far your labour has progressed. From this, the team will have a better understanding of how much care you require and how soon you are likely to give birth.

Your midwife will ask you some questions about how many weeks pregnant you are, what early labour signs you’ve experienced so far, and how far apart your contractions are. She’ll then check your urine, pulse, temperature, and blood pressure.

Next comes the abdominal check, in which your midwife will feel your abdomen to check the baby’s position and whether or not their head is engaged in the pelvis. If you agree to it, she may also carry out an internal examination, which will allow her to tell how much your cervix has dilated.

Your midwife will carry out these examinations again at various points during your labour to check everything is progressing normally.

If labour has not started
If the midwife’s examination reveals that your labour has not yet started, you may be told to go home so that you can rest. A busy labour ward is not always the best place to spend the very early stages of birth, so try not to see it as a disappointment – at least you will know things are still a little way off yet and that you have some time to relax.

Important – If you or your child are unwell you should seek medical advice from a professional – contact your GP or visit an A&E department in an emergency. While My BabyManual strives to provide dependable and trusted information on pregnancy and childcare 24/7 via our website pages, we cannot provide individual answers to specific healthcare questions.