Pregnancy and childbirth do not always go as planned, and sometimes maternity leave needs to start earlier than anticipated. With that in mind, here are some frequently asked questions to guide employers in these circumstances.


1. When is the earliest a woman can take maternity leave?

The earliest date a woman can opt to start her maternity leave is 11 weeks before her expected week of childbirth, i.e. about 29 weeks pregnant.


2. Can I force her to start her maternity leave early?

If a pregnant employee is off sick with a pregnancy-related condition during the last four weeks of her pregnancy, you can start her maternity leave.

But if she’s off sick sooner than that, there is nothing you can do, even if her doctor has signed her off for the remainder of her pregnancy. She will stay on sick leave until either the date she has already notified you she wants to start maternity leave, or until four weeks before her due date, whichever is the sooner.


3. What if she wants to bring maternity leave forward?

Employees have to specify a date they want their maternity leave to start by 15 weeks before their due date. The trouble with that is, most women won’t know at that stage how they will be feeling later in their pregnancy, so it’s not at all unusual for women to initially say they are going to start maternity leave right at the last minute, and then as their pregnancy progresses, change their mind and feel they cannot wait that long.

If a woman wants to change her maternity leave start date, she is supposed to give you 28 days’ notice, but clearly there are going to be occasions where this isn’t practicable. A woman may struggle on and hope to get as far as she originally planned, but may realise she needs to go off sooner.

It is sensible to accommodate this, even if doing so is at some inconvenience to yourself, as the alternative is probably the woman going off sick anyway. Encouraging your member of staff to use annual leave to effectively start maternity leave early can be a good compromise if she is not already planning to do this.


4. What if she gives birth before her maternity leave starts?

This is not uncommon particularly when women plan to work right up until the last minute. Obviously babies are not predictable, so it’s entirely likely you may find yourself in receipt of a phone call saying the baby has arrived, or your employee has gone into labour when she is not scheduled to start her leave for a week or two.

In those circumstances the maternity leave is triggered by the birth of the baby, and starts on the day following the birth.

If a baby is born very prematurely, before the 29 week point which is the earliest maternity leave can usually start, the woman can still take maternity leave, and her leave will start the day after she gives birth. If the baby is sadly stillborn, she can take maternity leave as normal as long as the stillbirth was 24 weeks or more into the pregnancy.


5. What if she is off on annual leave prior to maternity leave and gives birth?

It is not possible to remain on annual leave once baby is born, as the day after the baby is born is the latest possible date to start maternity leave, even if the baby arrives early. So if your employee is planning to take a couple of weeks annual leave from, say, week 37 of her pregnancy, and then start maternity leave at week 39, if she gives birth during week 38, her maternity leave will start. In those circumstances you are will need to allow her to carry over her annual leave to use after her return from maternity leave.


If you need further advice on an employee starting maternity leave early, do get in touch.