Health experts have raised concerns about the "shocking" number of women who feel "let down" by their maternity care.
Many pregnant women are not given a choice over where they give birth and their maternity care is "fragmented", the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) and parent charity NCT said. A new report conducted by the organisations examined the experiences of 5,500 women who gave birth in the past five years.
It concluded that women's choice about where to give birth "remains an aspiration, not a reality", after one in 10 of those polled said they did not give birth in their intended location for reasons including a lack of staff and beds. "Too many women are still denied their choices on a daily basis," the researchers said.
The report highlighted that during 2011 and 2012, 24 NHS trusts were forced to close their doors to women in labour on 455 occasions - two-fifths of the closures were due to staff shortages and another two-fifths were because the wards were full to bursting.
The authors said many women experienced fragmented care, after 88% said they had not met any of the midwives who delivered their babies before labour. Concerns were also raised about postnatal care after one in five women said they did not see a midwife as often as they would like to in the days and weeks following birth.
Belinda Phipps, chief executive of NCT, said: "We are extremely concerned about the shockingly high number of women who have been let down by their maternity care. Parents who are poorly supported during pregnancy and labour are more likely to suffer mental and emotional consequences and feel less equipped to face the ups and downs of the months ahead. With rising UK birth rates, governments cannot afford to sit on their hands. Consistent, high quality care is a must for every parent during their first 1,000 days."
Ruth Bond, chair of the NFWI, added: "This report provides insight into the patchy and staggeringly inconsistent levels of care that are a day-to-day reality for women in the early days and weeks following the birth of a child. Almost 2,000 women will give birth across the UK today, sadly many will be let down at a time when they most need help. Evidence shows that providing the right care and support in the transition to parenthood can have a long-term impact on the health and well-being of women and their families, yet women are being routinely failed, often this seems to be because of staff shortages."
Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: "The report paints a disappointing and worrying picture of our maternity services. We are 5,000 midwives short in England. Without enough midwives to cope with the increasing demands on maternity services I fear that we will not see the situation depicted in this report improving. The Government recognises the need for more midwives and numbers are increasing, but there is still a long way to go."
The news comes after Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) research found that the number of women who had to undergo induced labour or instrumental deliveries was twice as high in some hospitals compared with others. RCOG, along with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, examined data concerning English hospitals in 2011/12. They found that among women giving birth for the first time, there was a two-fold difference between hospitals with the highest and lowest rates of induction of labour, with the lowest having 17% of new mothers being induced and the highest having 38%.
The figures also showed that in some areas, 20% of first-time mothers had to have an emergency caesarean section after induction of labour, compared with 40% in other areas. And they found that the number of new mothers who had instrumental deliveries varied from 16% to 32%. RCOG said the variation may be a "source of concern" as it could suggest that "not all women are getting the best possible care".