What happens if my baby is ‘late’?

Many mothers hope for a birth on or around their baby’s due date. Read more about what happens if your baby doesn’t arrive on time, and ways of inducing labour.

This article covers:
When is a baby ‘late’?

What starts labour?

Why are some babies ‘late’?

Can I do anything to start labour myself
What is a membrane sweep?

What happens in a medical induction (starting labour artificially)?

Further information

When is a baby ‘late’?

Pregnancies vary a lot in length. It is quite normal and healthy for one woman to be pregnant for over 10% longer than another.

The date suggested by your midwife or GP as the ‘due’ date is only to indicate a likely time for the birth. Your baby may arrive at least two weeks before or after that day. Only a small percentage of babies – about 5% – are born on their ‘due’ date. 

Remember that pregnancy is measured from the date of your last period, and the conception could have occurred at variable times over the weeks after that. Even if you are sure of the date of conception, the length of pregnancy can still vary a great deal.

Most babies (around 80%) are born at between 38-42 weeks of pregnancy. This is often called ‘at term’. Babies born after 42 weeks are described as ‘post-term’ while those born before 37 completed weeks are ‘preterm’, or 'premature'.

What starts labour?

It is not known exactly what starts off a normal labour. The mechanism of uterine contractions is controlled by the natural hormones in your body, mainly oxytocin. Hormonal activity can be influenced by emotions and the external environment. For example, a woman experiencing fear or stress is unlikely to start or continue labour (once started) until she feels more relaxed and secure.

Your baby’s actions, position and stage of maturity may have influence on the progress towards labour as well.

Why are some babies ‘late’?

It can be frustrating to sit through your due date with no baby showing signs of arriving. But it can be helpful to remember that your baby may not be quite ready to be born. Babies’ heart, lungs, skin and other organs need to be prepared for the environment outside the womb, and this may take a little longer than the average.

It is possible that your baby’s position may affect the start of labour. If your midwife tells you the baby is ‘breech’ (with head up and feet or bottom down) or is ‘occiput posterior’ (head down, but facing your front) you may want to consider trying positions and movements that help your baby move to the best position for birth.

Can I do anything to start labour myself?

If you’re feeling fed up and uncomfortable, or if you want to avoid a medical induction, you might be tempted to try and start labour off yourself. There are many different ways that women have used to attempt this, though none has been shown to be widely effective.

Sex or sexual arousal, including nipple stimulation, raises levels of oxytocin in your body. It may also offer the benefits of physical exercise, feeling emotionally fulfilled and passing the time!

Acupuncture, reflexology, homeopathy, herbalism, and aromatherapy all offer methods of encouraging labour to start, but again, research into effectiveness has not been established.

Your body produces labour hormones more readily if you’re relaxed, and one way of helping labour to start might be to try some relaxation exercises, and perhaps to spend time thinking about your baby.

What is a membrane sweep?

If your labour doesn't start by 41 weeks, your midwife will probably offer you a 'membrane sweep'. This involves having a vaginal examination, when she will insert a finger gently into your cervix and move it between the top of the cervix and the bag of waters. This may stimulate the cervix to produce the hormones, called prostaglandins, which trigger natural labour.

This has been shown to increase the likelihood of labour starting in the next few days, and to decrease the need for induction, but it isn’t always effective. Some women have reported bleeding and discomfort after a membrane sweep. You don't have to have this, but it is worth consideration if you wish to avoid medical induction, which may restrict your options for the birth.

What happens in a medical induction (starting labour artificially)?

If your labour still doesn't start, your midwife or GP will suggest a date to have your labour induced (started off). If you don't want to be induced, and your pregnancy continues to 42 weeks or beyond, you and your baby will be monitored. Your midwife or GP will check that both you and your baby are healthy by giving you ultrasound scans and checking your baby's heartbeat. If your baby is not doing well, your GP and midwife will again suggest that labour is induced.

Induction can be carried out in at least two ways. Usually the first to be tried is a prostaglandin pessary. This is a soluble device, containing the hormone prostaglandin, inserted in the vagina, which will help to soften the cervix and allow labour to progress as it would naturally.

The other commonly used method is a syntocinon drip. Syntocinon contains an artificial form of oxtyocin, the hormone which helps your womb contract. A tube is put into your arm, using a needle, and it gradually releases the oxytocin.

If your labour is induced in this way, you may have a different kind of labour experience. Many women find that syntocinon causes contractions that are strong and difficult to cope with. Continuous electronic monitoring of the baby's heartbeat is usual to ensure that the drug used to stimulate the contractions is not putting the baby under stress. You are likely to be less mobile and you won’t be able to use a birthing pool. More women opt for epidural anaesthesia if their induction of labour is carried out with an oxytocin/syntocinon drip.

Syntocinon is often used alongside the manual ‘breaking of the waters’ (when the midwife intentionally punctures the amniotic sac to promote the start of labour), with the drip in place ready for when the waters have been broken.

Page last updated: 3 September 2012

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700. We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

Information from NHS choices on being overdue and on induced labour