Stages of labour
There are three distinct stages of labour, and the final one isn't actually the arrival of your baby, but instead the delivering of the placenta and membranes.
At a glance
- First stage - your cervix is preparing for birth through contractions
- Second stage - your baby makes their entrance into the world
- Third stage - the delivery of the placenta
The first stage of labour
The first stage of labour consists of early labour, active labour and the transitional stage – early labour is where your cervix begins to prepare for giving birth by thinning out and shortening. It will also shift position so that it’s pointing more towards your front, moving from a position which was slightly towards your back.
The early stage of labour has three phases:
During this stage your contractions might be as much as 20 minutes apart as your cervix is beginning to open and widen to around 3cm.
Your contractions at this stage may not be very noticeable, feeling like mild cramps or menstrual pains. It’s likely you’ll be able to talk through them without too much discomfort and may even find you can continue with your normal routine for now. It’s advised to stay at home during this phase until the contractions become stronger.
At this stage of labour you’re contractions will begin to be more powerful and more frequent. Your cervix is continuing to open from around 3cm to fully dilated at 10cm. Unlike the latent stage, your contractions will now be a lot more often, close to every three to four minutes and they will last anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds.
As you advance through the active stage of labour and your cervix continues to dilate, your contractions will become stronger. You’ll find that you probably won’t be able to talk through each one, instead you’ll need to focus on breathing and trying relaxation techniques to help control your breathing.
You may lose your appetite and start to feel sick during the active stage of labour as your body prepares itself for the delivery of your baby by clearing out your digestive system.
During the active stage of labour you should move to your place of birth, or have your midwife come out to you if you’re having a home birth.
This stage occurs when your cervix is about 8cm dilated and it’s also when you may have the first urge to start pushing. You may feel shaky, cold or even sick and will perhaps feel like you can't carry on! But you can – because at this point, the end is well and truly in sight and you’ll soon be holding your newest family member in your arms.
Your contractions may be less frequent now, but they will also be a lot stronger and longer-lasting each time. It may be at this point that you require pain relief to help you through.
The second stage of labour
The second stage of labour is when your baby makes their entrance into the world. You’ll be 'fully dilated', in other words, your cervix would have completely opened and you will be ready to push your baby out.
Your midwives will help you find the most comfortable position to deliver in – this could be sitting, kneeling, or leaning over a birthing ball. This stage can last anywhere between a few minutes to a couple of hours but if you’ve had a baby before it’s likely to take less time.
With each contraction you’ll feel the baby’s head lower down in your pelvis and likely feel the urge to bear down and push. Each time you have a contraction and push, your baby will move slightly further down your pelvis, and you’ll be one step closer to them!
Towards the end, as your baby's head is emerging, your midwife will encourage you to pant rather than push. Once your baby's head is out, the rest of the body will follow with the next contraction. You've done it. Congratulations you’re a mum!
The third stage of labour
Now that you are holding your newborn and having amazing skin to skin contact, you might think it's all over – but there is one final stage left – delivering the placenta.
You may have a few minutes to rest before your contractions start again and you may feel the urge to push as the placenta peels away from the wall of your uterus. Once the placenta and membranes are out, your midwife will likely examine it to ensure nothing has been left behind. They will also check your stomach to see if the uterus is contracting to stem the bleeding from where the placenta peeled away.
Your midwife can give you an injection to speed up the delivery of the afterbirth, although some mums prefer to deliver it naturally. Your midwife can discuss the pros and cons of both options with you, perhaps when you write your birth plan.