OBJECTIVE: to describe how women's maternal health, particularly at a psychosocial level, is assessed and promoted during the postnatal hospital stay. DESIGN: postal survey of public hospitals providing postnatal care and interviews with care providers. SETTING: all publicly funded maternity units and selected health professionals in Victoria, Australia. PARTICIPANTS: hospital postal survey: sixty six hospital respondents; interviews: 38 maternity unit managers, clinical midwives and medical practitioners. FINDINGS: there was little consistency across the State in relation to routine observations of the mother. Physical checks were much more common than enquiring about how women felt physically. Practice in psychosocial assessment was also diverse, with care plans/maps (clinical pathways) being the main tool to guide assessment. Most participants reported that psychosocial assessment was undertaken during pregnancy. Follow-up after birth also varied. Hospital respondents reported that emotional well-being is assessed postnatally by observation and conversation with women. Participants who were interviewed reported that midwives had mixed skills in assessing and dealing with complex psychosocial issues. Three hospitals administer the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale to women in the days after birth, and three hospitals provide routine sessions of structured debriefing. Survey participants reported that the busy and, at times, chaotic nature of postnatal wards affected the provision of care and the level of psychosocial support offered to women. KEY CONCLUSIONS: although one of the stated aims of early postnatal care is the promotion of maternal well-being, the diversity of practices and the routine nature of many of these practices suggest that care is often not individualised or woman-centred. The reliance of detecting and managing women with particular psychosocial issues during pregnancy results in this aspect of care being given less priority postnatally than may be ideal. IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: strategies are required to provide health professionals with guidelines and skills to enhance the detection of women who have, or have the potential to develop, health problems after birth. This requires a reorganisation of the way early postnatal care is provided in relation to the use of routine practices; the ability of caregivers to spend time with women in an environment that offers privacy and confidentiality; the structuring of care around individual needs; and opportunities for women to be cared for by caregiver/s with whom they have met before.