Your five-minute guide to pregnancy and childbirth

05 June 2024

The highs and lows of pregnancy and childbirth

Navigating the highs and lows of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting is a huge learning curve.

From folic acid to pelvic floors, our five-minute guide to pregnancy and childbirth covers a lot of what you need to know.

Tired, queasy, nervous, excited? Welcome to the first trimester!

You’re pregnant! Your lentil-sized embryo (at six weeks) needs you to stay healthy to help it develop. Here's how:

  • Be active: staying or becoming active will help you both during and after pregnancy. Start those pelvic floor exercises now!
  • Give up bad habits: quitting smoking and alcohol, whilst limiting your caffeine intake will help to ensure you and your baby stay as healthy as possible.
  • Adjust your diet: cutting out foods such as unpasteurised cheeses and raw meat and fish can help you avoid dangerous conditions such as toxoplasmosis and listeriosis. In addition, switching to smaller meals and healthy snacks may ease nausea and energy dips. Taking a folic acid supplement is also helpful for your baby's development.

First pregnancy? Your GP will refer you to a midwife, who will ask questions about your health, lifestyle, work, relationships, and your mental health.

You will usually have 10 NHS antenatal appointments, including blood tests and screenings for Down's syndrome, HIV, hepatitis B, and inherited blood disorders.

Did you know?

Your NHS maternity exemption certificate qualifies you for free NHS prescriptions and dental health treatment.

As an employee, the earliest you can start maternity leave is usually 11 weeks before the due date. The UK government allows eligible employees up to 52 weeks' maternity leave. Tell your employer you are pregnant at least 15 weeks before baby's due date and give them the relevant maternity dates.

Know your numbers

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) can be paid to employees for up to 39 weeks. Eligible employees receive 90% of their average weekly earnings (AWE) for the first 6 weeks, then £184.03 or 90% of AWE, whichever is lower, for the next 33 weeks.1

Is this normal? Potential pregnancy complications

Contact your midwife if you sense something is not right, for example due to:

  • sharp tummy pain.
  • fever.
  • blurred/flashing vision or dizziness.
  • sudden swelling of hands/feet.
  • pain, tenderness or swelling in the legs.
  • vaginal discharge or bleeding.
  • extreme thirst.
  • constant vomiting.
  • a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI).
  • excessive itching.
  • anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.
  • changes in the baby's movements.

Trimester two: connecting with your baby

You'll have your first ultrasound at around 12 weeks; an emotional moment, as you get to "see" your baby for the first time.

The midwife sonographer will show you how many embryos you are carrying, check heartbeat(s) and development, and give you a due date, which you can choose to share when you announce your news, as many parents do around now because the risk of miscarriage is reduced from 12 weeks in.

In the second ultrasound, which takes place at about 20 weeks, you can find out your baby's gender (if you wish) and get a development update.

A third NHS scan is offered for multiple pregnancies, if your baby is smaller or larger than expected, or for gestational diabetes. And you can also choose to pay for additional private ultrasounds.

Know your numbers

One in 80 naturally conceived pregnancies results in a multiple pregnancy. For fertility treatment pregnancies, this rises to one in four pregnancies.2

At 18-20 weeks (when your baby is about the length of a banana) you will start to feel them moving around.

Notice what feels normal and if this changes - for example there are fewer or different movements - you should contact your midwife.

Massaging your wriggly bump with suitable oil, chatting, and playing music are good ways to bond with your baby at this stage.

Trimester three: counting down to the big day

From 28 weeks the blissful second trimester may start to feel… less comfortable. Heartburn, sleeplessness, and backache are common niggles.

Walking, stretching, and swimming can help. But don't forget to also take the time to get some rest and practise the breathing and relaxation techniques you learn in antenatal classes.

From 35 weeks, it's a good idea to put together the things you and your baby will need once those contractions start, including a suitable car seat, and make a birth plan with your midwife.

Did you know?

Every year, around 1 in 7 babies born in the UK are admitted to neonatal units, either because they are premature (under 37 weeks) or need extra medical care.3

Contractions and labour

As you approach your due date, you may feel the baby moving lower in your pelvis or experience so-called Braxton Hicks contractions, both of which are indications your body is preparing for labour.

In the early stages, keep moving, drink fluids or small snacks, have a warm shower or bath and try the breathing and relaxation exercises you have learned.

Some pregnancies last for up to 42 weeks, at which stage doctors may decide to induce labour.

But, even if you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, call the midwife if:

  • your waters break.
  • you have vaginal bleeding.
  • your baby is moving less than usual.
  • you have three or more contractions every 10 minutes.

If you are not having a planned caesarean, once you go into labour, you can expect there to be three main stages:

  1. Established labour. Strong, regular contractions, as your cervix dilates from 4cm to fully dilated for natural delivery at 10cm. It takes 8-18 hours, so stay relaxed and focus on breathing. Midwives may examine and monitor you or try to hasten active labour.
  2. Active labour. If your body is telling you to push, the baby is ready to come out! If you had an epidural, you might not feel this, but your midwives will help. If you can, get into a position that feels right. Breath and push as the baby's head, then body, is delivered.
  3. Placenta delivery. Choose to deliver this naturally or have oxytocin to speed it up. Stitches for an episiotomy or tear happen afterwards.

If there are concerns about your health or the baby's, an obstetrician may also suggest an emergency caesarean, which takes place in an operating theatre with an anaesthetic.


Once your labour is over, your newborn will generally be placed on your chest to enjoy some skin-on-skin time.

You will also be able to give your baby its very first feed and then learn how to dress, bathe, and change their nappies!


About the author

Jessica Bown is a freelance writer and journalist.