Don't be caught off guard if baby comes early. Here's when to pack your hospital bag and 7 things not to forget to put in it.

By Maria Carter
Adobe Stock

The third trimester brings excitement for the arrival of baby, and as you prepare to welcome the newest member of your family, certain questions arise—like when to pack your hospital bag for delivery.

Pack too soon and you've got a suitcase sitting in the corner gathering dust; too late and you're scrambling to find everything.

Nina Spears, a birth doula, childbirth educator and founder of Baby Chick, recommends having your bags packed around week 35 and in the car by week 37 at the latest.

"You never know if you'll go to a doctor's appointment and things won't look normal," says Spears, who has assisted more than 60 births. "If you have high blood pressure or something doesn't look right, you could be admitted to labor and delivery right then."

Women who wear contact lenses, for example, may want to keep a set of eyeglasses in their bag, in case of an emergency C-section. "Some anesthesiologists are fine with the patient wearing contacts during a C-section but others prefer you remove them and wear glasses," says Spears.

Labor Bag vs. Postpartum Hospital Bag

Contrary to what some soon-to-be parents may think, it's best not to pack everything you'll need for labor and the subsequent hospital stay in the same suitcase. Childbirth pros distinguish between the two events for good reason.

"You don't want to lug all of that stuff around from intake to triage to the labor room, then the mother's room and back to your car," says Marian Malinski, RN, childbirth educator with University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

Spears agrees: "Labor and delivery rooms are smaller than you'd think," she says. "Once you're transferred to a postpartum room, your partner can go to the car, get your bags, and get settled with baby in the room rather than bringing everything in during the throes of contraction."

Malinski recommends the birth partner carry a small backpack stocked with comfort measures for labor—which could last anywhere from 3 to 30 hours.

Packing for Labor

  • Your VIP contact list – "Beyond grandparents and childcare providers, pet-sitters are especially important contacts, as pets can easily be forgotten in the excitement and confusion of childbirth," says Malinski.
  • An empty folder or tote bag – "You'll get quite a bit of paperwork, information and care instructions for both mom and baby," Malinski explains. "Many parents stuff all these items in their luggage, and get home and forget about them in the newness of caring for the baby." Keeping everything in a designated space makes it easier to find.
  • Eyeglasses, if you need them
  • Birth ball – Pre-epidural, "a birth ball allows for sitting, leaning, bouncing, moving your hips, which is great to do in labor because it places the baby right on your cervix to help with better dilation," says Spears.
  • Peanut ball – Post-epidural, you'll be confined to the bed, but a placing a peanut ball between your legs while you're on your side can help your pelvis stay open. "When our legs are together, we're subliminally telling the body do not have a baby," says Spears.
  • Snacks – For the birth partner; make sure they're odor-free. "Mothers in labor are very sensitive to smell," Malinski explains.
  • OTC medicine – For anything that might ail the birth partner. "A mother does not want to hear about her partner's aches and pains in while she's in labor," says Malinski, "and hospitals can't give medication to non-patients, not even an aspirin."

Your hospital may keep some of these items on hand. Find out during your hospital tour, before you even start thinking about when to pack a hospital bag for delivery. "If you don't see a birth ball or peanut ball in the room, ask," says Spears. "They may have them or they may only have a couple and recommend you bring your own."

If you're working with a birth doula, she may bring a birth ball, cooling and heating packs, and massage oils—check with her ahead of time and plan accordingly.

Packing for Your Postpartum Hospital Stay

Pack separate postpartum bags for mom and partner with the essentials, including a robe for mom and layered clothing for partner, soap and shampoo (hospital toiletries are minimal), and your pillow in a patterned pillowcase that's easily distinguishable from hospital linens.

For baby, don't overpack. The hospital will have diapers, t-shirt onesies and plenty of flannel blankets, and you should be doing lots of skin-to-skin contact during your first days together anyway, says Spears.

Do bring a going-home outfit for baby and her carseat, which should be installed long before her due date. That way, there's time for a safety check, if needed, which some hospitals offer. "Then, leave the base in the car and bring the seat into the hospital room to do a fit test on baby," Malinski advises.

Check out our ultimate hospital bag checklist for more guidance.

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