Turning the first sod for construction of a new maternity unit at Whangarei Hospital was a challenge for Northland District Health Board chief executive Nick Chamberlain and new mother Stephanie Barclay.

Both had a foot pushing on a new spade, but it failed to penetrate the hard clay and rubble left behind after the demolition of wards six and seven last year, which paved the way for construction of the new $9.8 million maternity facility.

Dr Chamberlain finally found a soft spot and the pair managed to get some soil turned over, completing the ceremony.

Earlier, DHB deputy chairwoman Sally Macauley said the new facility would replace the present maternity unit, and she recalled how her son Peter had been born at the hospital soon after the unit was opened 40 years ago.

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Five children are born daily at the Whangarei Hospital. No births are scheduled at Northland's other hospitals.

The new maternity inpatient unit will have one and two-bed rooms with en suites, a three-bed acute care unit for complex antenatal and postnatal care, assessment rooms, and four antenatal clinic rooms, a dedicated birthing room for stillbirth or neonatal loss, and a central reception area.

The unit, which the DHB says will be family-friendly, will comply with Australasian health facility guidelines and is expected to open late this year.

The site of the new facility was blessed with holy water by the Rev Susan Green after karakia by DHB kaumatua Hare Rihari, who also closed the turning-the-first-sod ceremony with a prayer.

Ms Barclay, an executive assistant in the DHB strategic projects office, attended with her son Rocco, who was born at the hospital on Christmas Day. She and her partner, builder Brendon Lindsay, also have another son, Harper, 2 .