With one baby born in the UK every 40 seconds – the highest birth rate in almost 20 years – some maternity units are struggling to cope.
Across the UK, maternity units were forced to close to new admissions 1,055 times last year, nearly always because of understaffing or lack of beds, a series of Freedom of Information requests have found. At least 927 women were turned away.
In some London trusts, one in five midwifery posts lies vacant. The Royal College of Midwives says at least 4,700 extra midwives are needed in England and Wales.
An as yet unpublished independent inquiry examining an increase in maternal deaths in the capital looked at 42 deaths of women over an 18-month period from January 2009 and found that substandard treatment was a major factor in 17 cases.
The report said: "Several deaths occurred when activity in a mater- nity unit was high and one-to-one care could not be delivered."
The research, carried out by the BBC's Panorama for a programme to be broadcast this evening, involved contacting 171 Health Trusts and Boards.
NHS London's chief nurse, Trish Morris-Thompson, told the programme: "The report indicates that less than optimum care was given and death did occur. However, we need to look in the context of those 200,000 births that occurred in that time."