What happens when you go past your due date?

From the moment you pee on that stick, the entire world – from family and work mates right through to chatty strangers in the produce aisle wants to know: ‘when’s the baby due?’. Here’s what you need to know about how that due date is calculated, what it actually means, and what happens if your pregnancy goes beyond it.

What exactly is the due date?

Firstly, it’s worth acknowledging that the concept of a due date is actually quite strange. If humans were so predictable, hospitals would never be under or over-staffed, babies would never arrive suddenly in driveways, and life would be a whole lot easier to plan.

Instead, the more accurate term is ‘estimated due date’. In reality, only a small percentage – around 5 per cent – of births will occur on the due date. That’s because the traditional method of calculation – counting 40 weeks from the first day of the last period – assumes mum has a 28-day menstrual cycle, which is often not the case (we wish it were that simple!). 

What’s more, we know that lots of pregnancies go beyond that supposed ‘due date’ – studies showing that roughly half of first time mums will give birth later than 40 weeks and 5 days.

All of which is to say that the date you’re given isn’t set in stone.

What happens if I go past my due date?

Within maternity care, induction of labour at or around the due date is becoming increasingly common. That push (pardon the pun) to avoid going ‘overdue’, leads to many mums wondering, ‘What happens if I DO go past my due date? Is it safe for the baby? What will happen next?’ 

Truthfully, what happens when your estimated due date arrives without your baby making their entrance to the world will depend largely on your care provider’s approach to managing post-term pregnancy. Policy and practice differs, however for the most part, obstetricians and hospital maternity units will recommend induction of labour somewhere between 40 and 42 weeks. Some may even encourage mums to birth closer to 39 weeks gestation, depending on your unique circumstances, including age, health and pre-existing complications.

What’s important to remember is that after chatting through the risks and benefits with your care provider, the choice is yours, always.

Why not just wait for nature to take its course?

As we’ve discussed, an estimated due date at 40-ish weeks pregnant is not black and white, so waiting for labour to begin of its own accord is definitely an option – known as ‘expectant management’. 

There are well documented benefits to allowing labour to begin spontaneously. A 2021 study covering more than 450,000 births over a 16-year period found that induction of labour for non-medical reasons in first time mothers between 37 weeks and 41 weeks and 6 days gestation increased the rates of instrumental birth, intrapartum cesarean section, episiotomy and postpartum haemorrhage (Dahlen, et al 2021). This is quite significant and a reminder not to view induction as a simple ‘solution’ but rather, as a medical intervention that holds its own risks and therefore a step to be carefully considered. 

In the event that you choose to decline induction of labour at full term, your care provider may encourage an increase in monitoring. Most commonly, this looks like presenting to hospital a few times a week to assess the baby’s heart rate pattern using a machine called a ‘CTG’, a scan to assess the level of amniotic fluid around the baby and mum closely monitoring your bub’s pattern of movement for any signs of reduction or change to the norm. Once again, your care provider’s approach to post-term management will likely influence what will be offered if you do surpass full term and decline induction.

So, why might they suggest an induction?

There are a few reasons why a care provider may guide you towards not going beyond your due date. Research has shown that pregnancy and neonatal complications increase when pregnancy exceeds 40 weeks, including the likes of pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure leading to organ failure), chorioamnionitis (infection of the membranes) and placental abruption (placenta separating from the wall of the uterus prematurely). Similarly, ‘overdue’ babies are more likely to have low apgar scores at birth, weigh over 4.5kg and require admission to neonatal intensive care (Caughey, 2007).

While the overall likelihood of these problems occurring remains low (i.e if you double a small number, you still get a very small number), they cannot be discounted. The overarching fear of course, is the risk of stillbirth. Based on a large body of evidence (summarised here) we know that the risk of stillbirth does increase at the end of pregnancy, and again while the absolute risk remains small, this is something that must be considered when we weigh up the benefits vs. risks of induction.

Considering all your options

While this decision may seem overwhelming, it’s important to know that open discussion with your care provider about your options is always encouraged. We all have unique circumstances and different interpretations of ‘risk’ so what feels right for one family, may not for another. 

If you are approaching full term, here are some talking points you may like to bring up with your care provider to help guide your decision making: 

  • Outside of being post-term, what other risk factors are unique to my pregnancy that may influence potential complications arising?

  • Are there other signs that my body is ‘ready’, and how will this impact the likelihood of a successful induction process? (For e.g. cervical examination might reveal your cervix is soft, towards the front and slightly open which increases the chance of a successful induction, vs. a cervix that is hard, closed and positioned toward the back. This is known as a ‘bishop score’ and is a commonly used technique of determining induction method).

  • If I choose not to be induced, how will we monitor for complications while I wait for labour to start? What will that look like? (Your care provider may encourage you to present for regular monitoring or ultrasounds).

  • What method of induction are you proposing and what are the success rates of that method at this hospital?

Those final days and weeks spent waiting for your bub can be challenging. With each passing day, it can be hard to trust the process and believe that soon your little one will be in your arms. But know that one way or another, birth is just around the corner and every day spent waiting will be so, so worth it.

Read next: Ways to induce labour naturally: what actually works?


Expert author: Beth Ryan

Beth Ryan is a registered midwife with a Master’s degree in Public Health. You can find out more about her by following her on Instagram here.

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