UK pregnancy guide: Giving birth in the United Kingdom
If you're pregnant and preparing to give birth in the UK, here's a guide to having a baby in the UK, including prenatal care, delivery and maternity and paternity pay in the UK.
Giving birth in a foreign country may seem scary when you’re unfamiliar with how it works and what you’re meant to do. International expat health insurer Bupa Global outlines the care offered at the three stages of giving birth in the UK — prenatal, delivery and aftercare — and information about registering your baby in the UK, gaining British citizenship, and UK maternity and paternity leave and pay.
The NHS is the standard bearer for women having a baby in the UK but home births are also possible, as are private clinics. This guide explains what to expect when giving birth in the UK, so you can be prepared during all stages of your pregnancy in the UK:
- Am I entitled to free NHS maternity care in the UK?
- Prenatal care in the UK
- Giving birth in the UK: the delivery
- Post-natal care in the UK
- Registering your baby in the UK
- Child benefits in the UK
- Is your child a British citizenship?
- UK maternity and paternity leave and pay
- Childcare in the UK
- Useful websites for pregnancy in the UK
Most foreign nationals living and working in the United Kingdom have access to free UK healthcare through the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS). The system provides maternity care — including antenatal, birth and post-natal care — free of charge to women who fall within the following categories:
- ‘Ordinarily resident’ in the UK – requires a person to live within the UK lawfully, voluntarily and with the purpose of settling. The NHS decides in a case-by-case basis whether the expectant parent meets the criteria.
- EEA nationals insured by another European state.
- Those exempt from charges – including refugees, asylum seekers, legal residents for at least 12 months, workers employed by a UK organisation and self-employed persons.
If you don’t fall within these categories, you might be asked to pay for your care but you legally can’t be refused maternity care in the UK if you are unable to pay in advance. The NHS, however, may pursue the debt after if charges apply. NHS care, however, is typically free if you’re working and paying national insurance contributions in the UK, or if your husband is working in the UK.
Alternate options to NHS hospitals are available, including home births or giving birth in a private UK hospital, which can be an expensive option but you will typically have access to better facilities. You can explore private healthcare options from a number of different private UK health insurance companies, otherwise you will have to bear the costs yourself.
To confirm if you are pregnant in the UK, you can find home pregnancy kits in all chemists and most supermarkets. If the test shows positive, make an appointment to see your doctor or midwife who will confirm the pregnancy. Read our guide on how to register with a general practitioner (GP) in the UK.
Once your pregnancy is confirmed, you should immediately make an appointment with your doctor or midwife to organise prenatal care and start getting the appropriate healthcare for you and your baby. You will also have two ultrasound scans around week 12 and 20 to assess your progress in whichever hospital, midwifery unit or birthing centre you have chosen. Several antenatal checks and tests are also undertaken, such as screening for Down syndrome. In total, you may have up to 10 appointments during the nine months of pregnancy. The NHS also recommends expectant mothers to have the flu and whooping cough vaccines administered during pregnancy.
Various classes, most often organised by the National Child Birth Trust, are held in local communities to help expectant parents prepare for what lies ahead. They may include learning how to handle a newborn baby or preparing for the birth itself. You can use the NHS website to find UK maternity services near you or visit Which? for more help.
Your doctor or midwife will make sure you get a clear picture of your pregnancy in the UK, nutrition and available classes, so feel free to ask all the questions you have. Your details will be entered in your record and will be updated by the midwife at each additional appointment. It is important to keep this record safe as it will be needed on the day of your delivery.
When signs of labour begin, you should head to your chosen hospital, birthing centre or community unit, or advise the midwife if you have decided to have a home birth, all of which are available in the UK.
Upon arrival at the maternity ward, check in with the admissions desk and show your birthing plan. You will then be set up in a delivery room, checked to determine what stage you are at and cared for by the medical staff. Your partner, or birthing partner, is permitted to be alongside while giving birth in the UK.
Delivery rooms in most maternity wards are much homier these days and you’ll often find several chairs and beanbags for you to move around during your labour, and sometimes even a bath or shower to make you feel more comfortable. Some maternity wards have birthing pools available for those who don't show any labour complications, but you typically need to request this option and book well in advance.
There is a wide variety of pain relief options for giving birth in the UK, some of which are commonly offered in other European countries. They include hydrotherapy, intramuscular painkiller injections, gas and air (Entonox), Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) and epidural anesthesia. Some hospitals also allow alternative pain relief methods but you would have to enquire beforehand and organise them yourself.
While a small selection of mothers may be released as early as six hours after giving birth in the UK, it is more common to spend a night or two in the postnatal ward. Once your midwife or doctor is happy that both you and your newborn baby are well enough to go home, you will be discharged.
If it’s your first baby, it can be a bit overwhelming. The midwives are there to help and make sure you have all the information you need to peacefully go home with your newborn.
If you have chosen to give birth in a UK hospital, you and your baby will remain in the maternity ward until the medical staff gives the all clear to return home, which can be as early as six hours after the birth if there are no complications. It may be that a newborn child is kept in longer than the mother, particularly where premature births are concerned.
Before leaving the ward, make sure to enquire about any details about post-natal care in the UK if anything is unclear. Also, bear in mind that British law requires you to have an appropriate child seat fitted for your baby if you’re travelling home by car.
Following the release of both mother and baby, a midwife will visit your home around every second day during the first 10 days. The midwife will check your recovery from labour and that your baby is feeding and gaining weight; the period may be extended for up to four weeks if the midwife isn't happy you're both settled.
A health visitor, who is a qualified nurse with extra training, will be assigned to you around 10 days after your baby is born. They will pay regular visits during the early years of your baby’s childhood. They will present a health check book, which parents can use to chart the progress of their child and keep track of the vaccinations and tests undertaken.
The mother, meanwhile, is expected to undergo a postnatal check-up with her doctor six to eight weeks after the birth. Visit the NHS website for an extensive list of post-natal services and support available to parents in the UK, such as talking therapy.
Parents have up to 42 days to register the birth of their child in the UK, except in Scotland where the limit is 21 days. You may be able to register the birth at the hospital before the mother leaves – the hospital will advise if this is available – but it is more commonly done at the local register office for the area where your baby was born in the UK.
If you are unable to register at the designated office, you can go to any register counter and the registrar will send your details to the appropriate district office. Here is a guide to who can register a baby’s birth in the UK.
To register, you may be asked to supply:
- your baby’s full name and gender;
- your baby’s place, date and time of birth;
- your own details including full name, address, place and date of birth and occupation;
- mother’s maiden surname; and
- date of parents’ marriage or civil partnership.
You should also take the following documents with you to the register office:
- Identification – ie. passport, birth certificate, deed poll, driving licence, proof of address, Council Tax bill or marriage/civil partnership certificate.
- Your child’s personal child health record or ‘red book’.
- Proof of paternity from your partner if you’re going on your own.
After registration, you will receive the short birth certificate that contains only the baby’s details for free. Copies of the short birth certificate, as well as longer versions carrying parental information, can be bought any time from the register office. If you registered at an office in the area where the birth took place, you will immediately be given the short birth certificate. Otherwise, you will receive it in a few days.
As having a child usually affects your taxes, benefits and local council privileges, most districts in the UK offer a ‘Tell Us Once’ service that allows you to report the birth to several government bodies in one go. The registrar will inform you whether this is available in your area and if not, you will need to take further steps to claim Child Tax Credit and contact JobCentre Plus regarding your benefits.
Expats who gave birth or are living in Scotland and Northern Ireland should check the National Records of Scotland or NIDirect websites respectively as the birth registration process varies in these regions.
From the moment you register a birth in the UK, you will be permitted to claim child benefit in most cases. Generally, expats who have the legal right to reside in the UK and call it their main home are granted child benefit in the UK – but there are certain exceptions.
For the first child, you will receive GBP 20.70 per week and for any further children GBP 13.70 per week (as of 2016) in child benefits, all of which is paid into your bank account by direct debit every four weeks. If one of the parents earns more than GBP 50,000 a year, the amount of child benefit received may be affected or you may incur a tax charge. You can also choose not to get the payments but are advised to fill in the claim form.
Babies born in the UK to at least one parent who is a British citizen or has UK permanent residency (also known as Indefinite Leave to Remain) at the time of birth are automatically granted British citizenship. Children of EEA/Swiss parents who have resided in the UK for at least five years while exercising treaty rights are also extended the same status.
To complete the registration, you must send the following documents to UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI):
- The completed MN1 application form
- Full birth certificate with parents’ names
- Parents’ passports
- Biometric information (fingerprints and a photo)
- Payment slip of GBP 936
- Proof that one parent is either British/has permanent residency or evidence that one parent is an EEA/Swiss citizen with permanent residency.
If you give birth in the UK, you entitled to take a total of 52 weeks of UK maternity leave if you are considered an ‘employee’ and meet the conditions (see below), however, only 39 weeks are covered by maternity pay. You are not obliged to take the full year off but it is compulsory to take a two-week leave after your baby is born, or four weeks if you work in a factory. You can calculate how much maternity or paternity pay you will receive.
The first 26 weeks are considered 'normal' maternity leave; mothers are then entitled to extend their maternity leave for an additional 26 weeks but must inform their employer first to get the additional time. Your employment rights are protected during your leave – you can't get fired – but your employer might require you to give a return date. However, certain employment types have different rules of entitlement, such as agency workers, directors and educational workers.
You can begin your maternity leave starting from 11 weeks prior to the expected childbirth week. Leave is otherwise automatically activated the day after delivery, or a month before your due date if you have to leave work due to a pregnancy-related illness.
New mothers qualify for Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) if they:
- have been in employment with the same company for the previous half a year (26 weeks);
- earn at least an average of GBP 112 weekly;
- have given your employer a written notice at least 28 days in advance, and proof of pregnancy.
Although SMP is paid for up to 39 weeks, it differs during the entire period. It covers 90 percent of your average gross weekly earnings for the first six weeks, and GBP 139.58 a week or 90 per cent of your average weekly earnings for the remainder, whichever is lower. More maternity leave and pay may be granted, however, under a company maternity scheme.
Women who don’t qualify for the SMP can check whether they fulfill the criteria to receive Maternity Allowance, a weekly payment made through Jobcentre Plus.
UK paternity leave is capped at one or two weeks for fathers and must be taken within 56 days of the birth. For the period you take from work, you will receive GBP 139.58 a day or 90 percent of your average weekly earnings, whichever option is lower.
Parents with newborns may also be eligible for Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Statutory Shared Parental Pay (ShPP), two new initiatives by the British government to give parents flexibility in sharing the care of their child during the first year of their birth. Check here to determine your eligibility.
There are numerous nurseries and crèches in the UK, many of which will accept children from a very early age. Most will look after children from as early as 7am until 6pm to allow parents a full work day. There are also government initiatives that help families cope with the cost of daycare by offering childcare vouchers tax-free through employers. Read Expatica’s guide on the childcare system in the UK.
- National Health Service (NHS): www.nhs.uk
- Private Healthcare UK: www.privatehealth.co.uk
- Which?: www.which.co.uk
- National Child Birth Trust: www.nct.org.uk
- British Government: www.gov.uk
- HM Revenue and Customs (tax): www.hmrc.gov.uk
Bupa Global offers international health insurance to expats in more than 190 countries worldwide.
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