How to Deliver a Baby in an Emergency

Man Takes Pregnant Woman to the Hospital to Have a Baby by Car

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The fear of emergency childbirth is common in pregnant women and their partners. You've probably seen it in movies, TV shows, and even the local news: A woman goes into labor so fast she doesn't have time to get to the hospital before the baby comes out, and a non-medical professional has to assist in the delivery.

While it is extremely rare that women don't make it to the hospital or birth center on time—most women spend seemingly endless hours laboring before the baby is ready to be born—it does happen. Here's everything you need to know if you find yourself in this position. 

What to Do If You Have to Deliver a Baby

Childbirth is a natural event that has been going on since the beginning of time. So don't panic and trust that you can do this. Billions of people have.

Stay Calm and Get Yourself Ready

Prepare yourself mentally and physically for the task ahead. The two most important things are staying calm and keeping the mom calm. 

  • Take a few deep breaths and focus on the task ahead. 
  • Remind the mother to breathe and encourage her to pant through contractions. 
  • If you are driving, pull over and put your hazard lights on. Do not risk an accident.
  • If time allows, call your doctor or midwife, who can talk you through delivery step-by-step and contact emergency services for you.

Call 9-1-1

If there is no time to call your doctor, call 9-1-1. If you are in a car equipped with an emergency button, like OnStar, press it to connect with help. When calling emergency services, have the following information available: 

Your Location: If you are home, be sure to unlock the door, and turn the porch light on if it’s dark so the police and ambulance can find you. If someone is with you, have them greet or flag down emergency services personnel in front of your home. If you are not home and are using a smartphone to call, turn on location services. Most mapping apps can pinpoint your exact location.

Important Details: Tell the operator a woman is in labor and the baby is coming. Know how far along in the pregnancy you are, details about contraction timing, and any special complications or situations.

The operator on the phone will likely stay on the line to help talk you through the birth if the baby winds up being born prior to the arrival of the emergency team.

Step-By-Step Guide to Delivering a Baby

Get Mom into Position

Put the mother on the floor or a steady surface, like the back seat of a car. Make sure she is as comfortable as possible. Remind her to try to pant, or only push very gently with the contractions.

Gather Supplies

The baby will be very slippery when she comes out and will need to be wrapped up. Pillows, towels, blankets, or things that can be used as a blanket and cushioning, like a coat or your shirt.

Wash Your Hands

If you are near a sink wash your hands if there is time. If you are in a car and have access to a water bottle, use it to rinse your hands if possible. Baby will be born with very little immune system and is susceptible to infections. 

Catch Baby's Head

As the baby's head becomes visible, place your hand on the head and provide it with support to keep it from popping out. Remind mother to try to pant during this part to help prevent tearing. If you're alone, simply place your hands over the baby's head as best as possible.

Gently Guide Baby Out

Do not pull on the baby's head or body. Let the baby and labor contractions do the work. You may gently guide the baby out.

Clean Baby's Nose

Once the baby comes out, gently stroke downward on the baby's nose to help expel the excess mucus and amniotic fluid.

Put Baby on Mom

Place the baby skin-to-skin on mom, with the baby's head slightly lower than its body (to help facilitate draining the mucus). Cover both of them with dry blankets or towels.

Deliver the Placenta

Don't cut or pull on the umbilical cord. While you may see this on television, both the mom and baby are safer without the cord being cut.

The placenta will likely deliver itself it the next 30 minutes. If it is born, before help arrives, place it next to the baby. Do not cut the cord.

Keep Mom and Baby Safe

While you wait for emergency services to arrive and bring mother and baby to the hospital, keep mom and baby safe and warm.

Dr. Gregory White, in his book Emergency Birth, says, "When in doubt, do nothing." This is probably the best advice available. Remain calm and do what you need to do to get help and stay safe.

Common Pregnancy Fear

An emergency delivery is a fear of almost every pregnant woman. It's a common plotline on cop shows and soap opera, but its actual occurrence is very rare—about 1.3% of babies in the United States are born outside of hospitals.

If you are worried about this happening to you, talk to your doctor or midwife about your fears. Learning more about the process and having a contingency plan helps some women to worry less about it and feel mentally prepared in the event of an actual emergency delivery.

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Article Sources

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  2. Neumann I, Mounsey A, Das N. Suctioning neonates at birth: time to change our approachJ Fam Pract. 2014;63(8):461–462.

  3. Andersson O, Hellström-Westas L, Andersson D, Domellöf M. Effect of delayed versus early umbilical cord clamping on neonatal outcomes and iron status at 4 months: a randomised controlled trialBMJ. 2011;343:d7157. doi:10.1136/bmj.d7157

  4. MacDorman MF, Mathews TJ, Declercq E. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trends in Out-of-Hospital Births in the United States, 1990–2012. Updated November 6, 2015.

Additional Reading

  • White, Gregory. Emergency Childbirth: A Manual. 2002.