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The stages of labour explained

We share advice on the stages of labour you'll go through when giving birth.
The experience of giving birth differs from woman to woman and even from pregnancy to pregnancy, however, medically it can be divided into three broad phases. To give you a better idea of what to expect, we explain the stages of labour you'll experience during childbirth.

Stage one

Once your baby is ready to be born they'll send a hormonal signal to your body that will kick start labour. The first signs of labour do differ between women however you may experience a 'show' (where the mucous plug that sealed your cervix throughout pregnancy comes away), your waters may break or you may simply start to experience contractions.

The purpose of contractions is to dilate your cervix so that it's able to stretch enough to allow your baby to pass through. You can differentiate labour contractions from Braxton Hicks as, over time, they gradually become more regular and more intense, although to begin with you may simply experience them as back aches and an aching and tightening feeling across the pelvis.

During the first stage of labour your cervix dilates from one to ten centimeters, this is the longest stage and can itself be divided into three phases:
  1. The early phase

    During this phase your cervix will dilate from approximately 1cm - 4cm and contractions will be light, last around 40-50 seconds and occur every 10 minutes or so. It's not quite time to go to the hospital yet so you should try to relax as much as possible so as to conseve your energy. It can also be a good idea to have a carbohydrate rich snack (although nothing too heavy) to give you plenty of energy to see you through the next few hours; bread, pasta, dried fruit and cereal are all good options.

  2. The active phase

    One you are around 4cm dilated contractions will start to become quicker and more intense. Over time they'll start to come every 3-4 minutes and will eventually last between 1 minute and 90 seconds in duration.

    Try to stay as relaxed as possible, practice the breathing exercises you learned with your partner and change position until you find one that is comfortable. You could try going for a walk, taking a warm shower or bath, using a birth ball or taking a dip in a birthing pool if one is available; basically doing anything that helps you to feel in control as your contractions become more intense. Once you and your partner feel it's time you should go to the hospital or call your midwife for reassurance if you're planning a home birth.

    Although the thought of labour can be particularly intimidating, remember that your contractions will gradually increase in their intensity so your threshold for dealing with them will also increase and, if you are finding it very difficult, your midwife will be available to explain the different pain relief options that will help you to cope.

  3. The transition phase

    This is the end of the first stage of labour and is when the cervix makes its final dilation from 8cm to 10cm. Contractions will now be very frequent and very intense and may feel as though they're coming one straight after the other. You may find that you feel sick, shaky or dizzy during this phase, but be reassured that while the 'transition' is the hardest phase, it's also the shortest. Again, do what every makes you feel comfortable, whether that be shouting, panting, squeezing your partner's hand or something else.

    After you have reached the 10cm dilation mark you enter the second stage of labour as your cervix has expanded sufficiently to allow your baby's head and body to pass through. However, before this you may experience a break in contractions for a short while as 'mother nature' gives Mum and baby a breather before delivery.
Stage two

During the second stage you begin to push your baby from your womb into the world, making all the hard work of labour worth while. This stage is characterised by a feeling of pressure between your legs and a strong urge to push downwards.

The practice you put in with your birth partner will now come into its own as they will be able to help you to focus on breathing through the contractions and changing position to make pushing more effective. Standing, squatting, kneeling or lying on your left hand side are all good positions to try as they allow your pelvis to open up and let your baby through. You may feel like you need to push several times through each contraction so unless your midwife advises you otherwise you should listen to your body and do what feels right.

When your baby's head begins to crown (reaches the opening of the birth canal) you will experience a strong stinging feeling and, as your midwife guides your baby out he or she may tell you to stop pushing and breath through the contractions so that your baby's head is delivered slowly and the risk of tearing is reduced. Your baby is likely to be delivered with their head facing your back, they will then twist sidewards so that their shoulders can pass through, followed by the rest of their body.

Depending on whether this is your first, second, or subsequent pregnancy, this stage can take as little as 10 minutes or up to an hour or two. However, despite the hard work, many women find this stage more bearable as they are able to really focus on the act of bringing their baby into the world.

Stage three

During the third and final stage of labour you will deliver the placenta. You'll already have your baby with you and, if possible, your midwife will help you to guide your baby to your breast and begin nursing as this not only helps your baby to thrive and encourages your milk to come in, but also helps to move the final stage along as quickly as possible.

Many hospitals offer a hormone injection that initiates the third phase of labour but whether you choose to have this or not is entirely up to you and is something you should discuss with your midwife and include in your birth plan.

During this phase your placenta is released from the uterus wall and contractions (less intense than those used to deliver your baby) will help you to pass it out through the birth canal. Once it is delivered your uterus will continue to contract in order to stop the bleeding and your midwife will check you to ensure that the placenta has come away as a whole. Depending on whether you use hormonal intervention or go through this phase naturally, it can last anywhere between five minutes to an hour, however, you'll be able to cuddle your baby by then so it'll all seem worthwhile.

After the third and final stage of labour is complete you're likely to feel exhausted and while you may feel elated straight away don't be worried if you feel too tired to properly bond with your baby at once. After you have had a rest and something to eat you'll be much better equipped to begin your journey into motherhood with plenty of time for bonding with your new son or daughter along the way.

Whether you have any questions or concerns about labour and childbirth, or anything else relating to your pregnancy or life as a parent-to-be, why not visit the AskBaby forums and meet other Mums and Dads who can share their advice and experience with you.

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I am 38 weeks pregnant and had my show 2 days ago i keep getin the same experiences as you but i have just been told to wait until the pain becomes unbearable or my waters break
by beccielee01 14th May 2010, 3:53pm
im 38+3 days pregnant and i had my show when i was 37+6 weeks pregnant i have been having pains for a while in my lower back and across my belly feeling like im really bloated i dont get much sleep as i find it hard to i just wondered whether the pains im experiencing are contractions because i was admitted to hospital when i was 37+5 weeks pregnant because i could feel babies head and in my notes its says i am1cmdilated and that my cervix is open but i was not in labour just experiencing tightening pains then any idea when he will come any advice?
by chantrelle 6th May 2008, 8:45am