stages of labour

As you get closer to your due date, many questions about giving birth and the stages of labour may arise.

It's normal to feel this way, since you are at a point where the eagerness to hold your baby in your arms for the first time may mix with anxiety, especially if this is your first pregnancy. In order to be more prepared, it's important to know how the whole process works before, during and after going into labour, and that's why we want you to run through the course of events that await you by reading this post.

Here you'll find the most remarkable and useful information about the three stages of labour, from early labour to the delivery of the placenta. What you are going to read is what will happen if you have a childbirth free of any complications, like an emergency C-section – which is what is likelier to happen! Are you ready for the ride?


Stages of labour: The first stage of labour

The big moment that you've been waiting for is about to happen, but first you'll have to leapfrog through the signs of labour and the early stages of labour, which can be divided into three phases: the early labour or pre-labour, the active labour and the transitional stage.

  • Early labour: it usually starts between 38 to 72 hours before going into labour, and it's characterised by mild contractions that come at intervals of about 20 minutes, along with 'bloody show', which happens when you discharge the blood-tinged mucus plug through your vagina. Basically, the cervix is gearing up by shortening and dilating little by little, but also by shifting its position so that it points more towards your front. This isn't a painful stage and it can lead to confusion, since such early contractions don't feel that different from Braxton Hicks contractions, which usually take place a few weeks before giving birth. During early labour, which lasts until the cervix widens around 3 cm, you are expected to be home but you don't necessarily have to change your routine. If you feel anxious, try doing some relaxation exercises. Just think that you may have a long night and day ahead of you.

  • Active labour: when the early or latent stage is over, you'll notice that contractions become stronger, more painful and more frequent, every three or four minutes, and can last up to 60 seconds. Your cervix will keep dilating from four to eight hours more, but by now you should call your doctor and midwife, and be moved to the hospital or whatever the chosen place is.

  • Transitional stage: once your cervix is about 8 cm dilated, you'll enter what's known as the transitional stage, which will resume until your cervix is fully open (10 cm). It can take from minutes to hours, depending on how smooth dilation goes; it's usually faster for those women who have already had a vaginal birth. If you haven't asked for pain relief before (epidural), this is the time to do so, since contractions will probably be way stronger and harder to cope with. That, of course, if you want it! A good piece of advice is to shift birthing positions until you find one that provides you with some relief and that allows for a comfortable delivery. Keep in mind that, at this point, it may be hard for you to talk, since you'll have to invest your energy in breathing well.

You need to take into consideration that the early stages of labour will change if your water breaks. If that's the case, you should go to the hospital right away. Also, if you show any signs of labour before being 37 weeks pregnant, don't hesitate to seek medical help as well, since you may be in preterm labour.


Stages of labour: The second stage of labour

Among the stages of labour, the second is the climax. Finally, you will be fully dilated, so it won't take long for you to feel rectal pressure, as your baby moves down the birth canal. Contractions may give you more breaks now, which should help you catch your breath after the previous effort. Whenever you feel ready, you can start pushing at the same time that contractions strike, so that you can rest and take breaths in between.

This stage of labour, which tends to last around an hour, may be rough and painful (if you make it here without pain relief), but remember that your midwife will assist you the whole time. If you feel the need to change to a different birthing position, ask for help and do it! Gradually, your baby will move further down your pelvis, being also helped by your uterus, which will push him down the birth canal with every contraction. If you are having problems to deliver, you could have an episiotomy, a surgical cut in the perineum (the body part between your vagina and anus) that is made to enlarge the vaginal opening. This is done to prevent the vagina tearing itself, which would be worse than having this controlled cut.

At a certain point, you may be asked to push more gently to prevent your perineum from tearing, until the baby's head is finally visible, the so-called 'crowning'. Little by little, his forehead will emerge and you'll be able to catch a glimpse of your precious son or daughter. The doctor may feel his neck to make sure the umbilical cord isn't around it before the baby makes it out of the womb with, probably, the next contraction. Congratulations!! You have just become a mum!


Stages of labour: The third stage of labour 

If there aren't any complications, you'll be able to enjoy the first skin to skin contact with your munchkin, who will be covered with a warm blanket to keep him 'toasty'. Immediately, his umbilical cord will be clamped and cut by the caregiver or even by your partner, if he's willing to do so. It sounds like a happy ending, doesn't it? Well, we are sorry to tell you, but it isn't yet. Soon after giving birth, you'll experience new uterine contractions, but don't worry. It's just your body trying to expel the placenta, which will peel away from the uterine wall. You may have to push again to speed this process, but it shouldn't take more than five or ten minutes. 

When the placenta and membranes are out, you may be checked to ensure that you got rid of it all and that your uterus is starting to contract and become firm. That is essential to prevent the blood vessels located where the placenta was attached from bleeding.


Stages of labour: What happens next? 

Once the third stage of labour is over, you'll be able to breastfeed, as long as the milk supplies are ready and the baby is willing to nurse. You can try getting his lips close to your breast, but if he's not interested, don't worry. Most newborn babies don't suckle their first milk intake until after their first hour of life. While that happens, you may be given oxytocin to help the uterus contract and you'll also be treated to stop your bleeding, in case it's excessive. 

It's normal for you to have mild contractions, commonly known as afterbirth pains, once you've got rid of your placenta. These may stop in a few minutes, but they can occasionally last for one or two days. Finally, in case you needed an episiotomy, the cut will need to be stitched up while you are marvelling at your little one.


Briefly, giving birth is a complex process that involves many components. The stages of labour have their own particular rhythm, and you can't forget that. For example, it would not make sense if you started pushing before your cervix was wide open. Also, remember that the timing described in this post is only indicative; an average of what's expected under normal circumstances, but every delivery is unique. As unique and special as your baby will be from the moment he makes his grand entrance into life.