How to prepare for an unexpected birth

Surprise birth: the most important thing is to not panic.
Surprise birth: the most important thing is to not panic. Photo: Getty Images

So you decided to skim through or ignore that little bit of your pregnancy book that detailed what to do during an unexpected, out-of-hospital birth. What are the chances of that happening, right?

But now, as you’re panting and feeling the urge to push, you’re wishing you had read it. Perhaps you’re at home and haven’t had contractions for very long, or you’re in the car on the way to the hospital, or at work before your maternity leave has even started, or even on holiday. Whatever the case, you are indeed going to be giving birth then and there.

The most important thing is to try and stay calm, says Jeannine Paterson, midwife and founder of Bellies Bubs & Boobs.

“When birth is happening so quickly it generally means that nature is working very efficiently,” she says. “By simply allowing things to evolve, problems are unlikely to occur.”

If you have someone with you, get them to ring 000 and ask for assistance. If you’re on your own, call the emergency services yourself – they’ll be your guide, with the voice on the other end telling you what to do. If, for some reason, you can’t ring for help, Paterson advises:

1. Find the most comfortable position. Note: sitting on the toilet isn’t recommended!

2. Grab some towels for the baby, and maybe something to catch the placenta in, such as a bowl.

3. The head will birth on its own, so there’s nothing that really needs to be done. If it’s a very rapid birth the body may come out vary fast, so your birth partner should be prepared to catch the baby – particularly if you’re standing or on all fours. Catch the baby with a towel in your hands, as newborns are very slippery!


4. If you’re on your own, find a comfortable position as close to the ground as possible. You can also lie down so your baby won’t drop to the floor.

5. Gently breathe the baby’s head out, rather than pushing it out too rapidly. Use the same breathing techniques you learnt at antenatal classes.

6. Once the head is born the next contraction generally births the baby’s body. The baby’s head will slightly turn to one side, and the shoulders will come next.

7. If the baby’s body doesn’t seem to be coming out, you can try to gently help one shoulder at a time. Ease the shoulder closest to your tummy first by gently moving the baby toward your bottom; the other shoulder should then emerge.

8. Contrary to what most people think, even if the umbilical cord is around the baby’s neck, it’s generally loose enough and can just be unlooped once the baby is out. If it seems too tight and is hindering the birth of the body, you may need to slip the cord over the baby’s head.

9. Leave the cord attached until help arrives. If it tears or snaps, try to clamp it with string or a similar object at the baby’s side.

10. If the baby’s membranes haven’t ruptured, you’ll need to tear them open with your fingers once the baby is born.

11. Once the baby is out, place her chest-down on your chest; skin-to-skin contact is best. Cover both of you with blankets.

12. It’s normal for the baby to be a bluish colour at birth, but after your child takes a few breaths and cries she should turn pink. If she doesn’t turn pink, stimulate her body by rubbing her with the towel.

Real-life surprise births

Stephanie Robles gave birth to her son unexpectedly in her bathroom at home. While she had her husband and the 000 operator on hand to help guide the process, she was caught unaware by the speed at which things happened.

It all began when Robles’s contractions were about six minutes apart, when her midwives said it was up to her whether she wanted to come to the hospital or not.

“I was waiting for my father-in-law to come pick me up to take me to hospital, but he didn’t make it on time,” she says.

From then, the contractions sped up very quickly to being three minutes apart. A few minutes later, her waters broke, she had a ‘show’ and delivered the baby, all within three contractions.

At no point did Robles or her husband panic, and she says this helped immensely. “It happened the way it did, it was perfect, it felt right and normal and like an experience we were both able to share,” she says.

While being at home can offer some comfort for an unexpected birth, for some women, like Claire Baker, a car seat is all that’s handy. Baker was in the middle of a Mosman traffic jam on the way to hospital when she gave birth to her son in the front seat of her car. She was then met by paramedics at a nearby service station.

Access to medical services and comfort aside, if you’re travelling overseas while pregnant, it pays to have health cover for accidental birth and the costs related to it. Australians Brett and Sonja Broom found out the hard way when their daughter was born at 24 weeks while the couple was holidaying in America - the medical bill is estimated to be around AU$1million. Baby Gracee is continuing to gain strength in an American hospital, which is charging the couple AU$5000 a day for her care. 

Interested in reading more birth stories? Check out the Essential Baby forum.