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Giving birth: What you need to know

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

As you progress through your pregnancy, your thoughts will naturally turn to giving birth. If it’s your first pregnancy, you probably have lots of questions about what will happen when it’s time to have your baby. In this article, we’ll answer some of those questions, including what you can do to prepare for the birth of your baby and what each stage of labour involves. You’ll find a handy checklist for what to take to the hospital, and we’ll outline what happens in the days following your baby’s arrival.

Getting ready for labour

Antenatal classes are a rich source of guidance and information during pregnancy. You’ll learn more about how to get ready for labour, things you can do to help yourself throughout the process, different types of pain relief available, and interventions that may be needed along the way. These classes also usually cover how to make your own birthing plan. This is a plan you can make that summarises your preferences for the birth. It’ll include things like where you’d like to give birth, what pain relief you think you’d like, who your birthing partner will be, and other important details that are specific to you. Think about how you can plan ahead by organising your transport to and from the hospital if you’re not having a home birth and consider doing an online shop to stock up on essentials before your due date. You could also do some batch cooking to have meals ready in the freezer for when you return home.

What to pack for the hospital

If you’re having your baby at the hospital or a local birthing unit, you’ll want to prepare a bag with all the supplies you’ll need for your stay. This will include a list of items for you and a list of items for the baby. Have your bag packed before your due date so you’re ready to go when it’s time.

For you:

  • Toiletries including your toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, face wipes, shower gel, deodorant, and any cosmetics you want to take

  • Two or three changes of clothes that are comfortable, loose-fitting, and stretchy like oversized t-shirts and maternity leggings

  • An outfit you’ll be comfortable giving birth in like a maternity gown or nightie (pack 2)

  • Up to 7 pairs of knickers that will fit maternity pads

  • Maternity pads (the NHS recommends 2 packs)

  • 2 non-wired, supportive bras in a larger size than your usual cup

  • Nursing pads

  • Slippers and a dressing gown

  • Any medical notes, medicines you’re prescribed, and your birth plan

  • Books, magazines, puzzles, music, or other entertainment to help you relax

  • Towels and pillows

  • Anything else that will help to put you at ease

For baby:

  • Newborn nappies

  • Baby bodysuits, vests, and a sleepsuit

  • Muslin cloths

  • A blanket

  • Mittens, a hat, and booties

  • A car seat ready to travel home in

The stages of labour

Labour can be categorised into four key stages. As your body starts to prepare for giving birth, you’ll enter what’s known as the latent stage of labour. During this phase, your cervix will soften and dilate (open) ready for delivery. This can take anything from a few hours to a couple of days, although it can be quicker in later pregnancies. You might experience contractions, although they may be mild and not have a set pattern at this stage. Make yourself as comfortable as possible throughout. You might want to have a shower or practice some breathing exercises ready for the next phase. The NHS recommends keeping hydrated and trying to eat something so you have plenty of energy when you progress to established labour.

Established labour is also referred to as the first stage of labour. It’s at this time that you’ll be experiencing regular, and likely stronger contractions. Your cervix will be dilated to around 4cm at this point. Your waters will usually break during this stage, although this can happen in the latent phase. The NHS provides guidance on what signs to look out for in established labour and when to attend your local hospital or birthing centre if you’re not having your baby at home. Your contractions will continue until your cervix has opened enough for your baby to pass through to the birth canal and be born.  

The second stage of labour is triggered once your cervix is fully dilated to 10cm. This is when you can start to push during contractions to help your baby move through the birth canal. Your midwife will guide you through when to push and what breathing techniques you can use at this stage to help progress things. Your baby will be delivered headfirst, with the rest of their body following in the next one to two contractions.

When your baby is delivered, you’ll be in the third and final stage of labour. This involves passing the placenta through your vagina once it has detached from the womb. Your midwife will talk you through what options there are for this, including a natural process and a medically assisted process. They will explain what each of these involves, and if there’s a clinical recommendation for you to have medically assisted management during this stage of labour.

Sometimes a caesarean section (C-section) might be recommended instead of a vaginal birth. This is usually suggested if there is a medical complication such as your baby sitting in the breech position (feet first) when you go into labour. It’s also recommended for women who’ve experienced pre-eclampsia in pregnancy.

After your baby's born

The NHS recommends skin-to-skin contact with your baby as soon as possible after they arrive as this will help you to bond with them. The midwife will clamp and cut your baby’s umbilical cord before drying and covering them. Your birthing partner may be able to help with cutting the cord if they want to. If you’re going to breastfeed, you’ll be supported to give your baby their first feed within an hour of them being born. You might opt to bottle feed or use a combination of breast milk and formula milk. The midwifery team will be on hand to discuss the options with you.

Your baby will be checked over by a medical team member who’ll then weigh them and place their hospital wrist or ankle band on.  

When you’re ready, you’ll be offered help to wash and change before moving to the post-natal ward. The midwifery team will talk you through any medical considerations following your labour, including any aftercare you might need. The NHS explains more in this article.

Support for new parents

When you return home, you’ll stay in touch with the clinical team and receive information about follow-up appointments and post-natal care for both you and your baby. This NHS guide gives you a comprehensive overview of what to expect in the early days. It includes details of what check-ups there’ll be, and where to find additional support.