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Stages of labour

There are three stages of labour. The first stage is when your baby is moving down the birth canal. The second stage is when your baby is being born and the third stage is when the placenta is delivered.

Understanding the stages of birth can help you know what is happening during your labour. Labour differs from woman to woman with an average of 8 to 16 hours for the first baby and 4 to 10 hours for the second or subsequent baby.

First stage

When you enter the first stage of labour, any light contractions you may have been having change into ones that are more painful and which follow more of a rhythm. You may need to ring the hospital if you go into early labour and discuss a plan.

This stage begins when the cervix begins to open. It is complete when the cervix has opened to around 10 centimetres.

In the very early stages of labour, your cervix begins to soften and becomes quite thin, this can go on for hours; days even. During this early stage you may feel nothing at all for some time. Eventually, you might feel some pain and discomfort but there is no pattern and the contractions are irregular.

In early labour you may have:

  • a blood-stained mucus discharge called  a ‘show’
  • lower back pain
  • period-like pain that comes and goes
  • loose bowel motions
  • a sudden gush or a slow leak of fluid from the vagina when your waters break or your membranes rupture. The ‘waters’ should be clear or slightly pink. (A greenish or bloody colour can indicate a problem with the baby and you will need to see a doctor or contact your hospital immediately)
  • a desire to vomit (it is quite common to vomit during labour).

Things you can do in early labour:

  • stay at home for as long as you can
  • have regular snacks
  • rest as much as possible, if it’s night time try and sleep.
  • try relaxing in a bath or a shower
  • go to the toilet regularly.

Your body is preparing for birth and you can help by resting, eating so that you are building your energy and emptying your bowels if you can.

Eventually, towards the end of the first stage of labour, you will start feeling a little more restless and tired and your pain will become more intense. The pain will come like waves, starting small and building to a climax and then falling away again. As you move closer to second stage, the time between each wave will be smaller. When there is less than three to five minutes between each wave it is time to go to the hospital.

Second stage

The second stage is when the cervix is fully dilated to when the baby is born. Sometimes, despite yours and our best efforts, a helping hand may be needed. It is important to understand what your options are. Ask about the benefits, risks and alternatives to treatment so that you can make an informed choice for you and your baby.

  • Pain reliefs drugs
  • Induction of Labour (IOL)
  • Assisted birth
  • Caesarean Birth

In second stage you may have:

  • longer and stronger contractions, with a one to two minute break in between
  • increased pressure
  • the desire or urge to push
  • shaky cramps, nausea and vomiting
  • stinging or burning sensation as the baby’s head emerges (known as crowning).

Things you can do in the second stage:

  • concentrate on your contractions and rest in between
  • try different positions i.e. sitting, standing or walking
  • if you feel hot, use a cold face washer to cool yourself
  • try a bath or shower to help you to relax and to manage the pain
  • keep up with your fluids and rest when you can.

Third stage

The third stage begins after your baby is born and finishes when the placenta and membranes have been delivered. The uterus will contract mildly to loosen the placenta before releasing it. Immediate breastfeeding can stimulate the placenta to detach naturally.

In the third stage you may have:

  • more contractions to expel the placenta
  • a feeling of fullness in your vagina.

The midwife will usually pull on the cord to deliver the placenta but may ask you to help by gently pushing.

Last updated 17 May 2015
Last reviewed 17 May 2015