Stages of labour

What are the three stages of labour?

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. Remember, each stage means that you’re a step closer to meeting your little one.

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 early part of the first stage is called the ‘latent phase’, you may have short contractions every 20 minutes or so, and they may stop and start. This stage can last several minutes to several days! However, as labour progresses, they tend to get longer, stronger and closer together, as your cervix is beginning to open and widen to around 4cm. Your contractions at this stage may not be very noticeable, feeling like mild cramps or period pains.  It’s likely that you will be able to talk through them without too much discomfort and may even find that you can continue with your normal routine for now. It’s advised to stay at home during this phase until the contractions become stronger.

It’s usually time to go to hospital when the contractions begin to be more powerful and frequent; lasting 50-60 seconds and coming every 5-6 minutes. Take travel time into account and before you leave home, ring the labour ward (and remember to take your notes with you!). 

The “established first stage” of labour is defined as regular, painful contractions accompanied by the cervix opening up beyond 4cm. 

During this phase try to rest and relax in different positions, have a bath or go for a gentle walk. Eat a light meal or snack and keep hydrated. Stay at home as long as you can with someone with you for support and encouragement. A TENS machine and massage can also help with the pain. 

As you advance through the established first stage of labour, you’ll find that you probably won’t be able to talk through each contraction, 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 this phase of labour as your body prepares itself for the delivery of your baby by clearing out your digestive system. 

Your contractions become strong and frequent as your cervix dilates and this phase can last 6-12 hours, but it usually progresses much more quickly once your cervix has dilated to four or five centimetres and contractions become longer and stronger. 

Here are some ways to cope with them: 

  • Hold on to your birth partner. Stand with your arms around their shoulders and let them support you, while you focus on relaxing and breathing 
  • Find the most comfortable position, for example using a birthing ball. You might benefit from changing position after every few contractions 
  • As you feel each contraction start, take a deep breath, and concentrate on your breath out. Sigh out slowly so that you feel your body relax. If in doubt – breathe out! 
  • In between contractions, drop your shoulders and try to relax. Stay relaxed as the next
  • contraction builds; they hurt more when you tense! 
  • Ask your birth partner to massage your back if you find that helps 

During the established first stage of labour you should move to your place of birth or have your midwife come out to you if you are having a home birth.

At the very end of the first stage of labour your cervix progresses from seven to 10 centimetres. This is the final part of the first stage of labour which many midwives term the transition phase. It’s also when you may have the first urge to start pushing. You may feel shaky and cold or sick, so you’ll benefit from plenty of support from your partner and midwife. It may be at this point that you require pain relief to help you through -  gas and air can come in handy at this stage and although many women find that this is the point they can’t go on, the good news is that this phase doesn’t last long and at this point the end is well and truly in sight and you’ll soon be holding your newest family member in your arms. 

Second Stage: The Birth 

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 is fully open, and you will be ready to push your baby out 

If you haven’t had an epidural being upright helps and your midwives will help you find the most comfortable position to deliver in.  This could be: 

  • Kneeling up on the bed leaning on pillows placed over the bed head 
  • Kneeling on the floor learning over a chair or birthing ball 
  • Sitting upright on the bed, propped up with pillows 

If you’ve had an epidural side-lying can be helpful too. Research shows that women lying on their side in the second stage of labour following epidurals are more likely to have a vaginal birth without forceps or ventouse.

This stage can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, so your birth partner may need to really start encouraging you now if you get tired. With every contraction, you’ll feel your baby moving down the birth canal and then slip back as the contraction fades. 

Towards the end as your baby’s head is emerging when they are about to be born, your midwife will tell you not to push – but to pant, or just breathe. This allows baby’s head to be born gently and once your baby’s head is out, during the next contraction or two, the rest of your baby will follow. And there you’ve done it.  Congratulations you’re a mum!

Third Stage: Delivering the Placenta  

After your baby is born you need to deliver the placenta. You’ll usually be offered an injection in your thigh to help things progress. Some mums prefer for this to happen naturally, but it can be slower so discuss your preference with your midwife beforehand.

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
Birthing the placenta was the strangest sensation ever. It felt like birthing a big slimy water balloon!

Stages of labour

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