OBJECTIVE: to describe the structure and organisation of hospital postnatal care in Victoria, Australia. DESIGN: postal survey sent to all public hospitals in Victoria (n=71) and key-informant interviews with midwives and medical practitioners (n=38). SETTING: Victoria, Australia. PARTICIPANTS: providers of postnatal care in Victorian public hospitals. FINDINGS: there is significant diversity across Victoria in the way postnatal units are structured and organised and in the way care is provided. There are differences in numerous practices, including maternal and neonatal observations and the length of time women spend in hospital after giving birth. Although the benefits of continuity of care are recognised by health care providers, continuity is difficult to provide in the postnatal period. Postnatal care is provided in busy, sometimes chaotic environments, with many barriers to providing effective care and few opportunities for women to rest and recover after childbirth. The findings in this study can, in part, be explained by the lack of evidence that has been available to guide early postnatal care. KEY CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: current structures such as standard postnatal documentation (clinical pathways) and fixed length of stay, may inhibit rather than support individualised care for women after childbirth. There is a need to move towards greater flexibility in providing of early postnatal care, including alternative models of service delivery; choice and flexibility in the length of stay after birth; a focus on the individual with far less emphasis on care being structured around organisational requirements; and building an evidence base to guide care.