What to expect during the different stages of labour

Labour is different for every woman, but the steps leading up to the big event are similar. Here’s what you can expect…


Stage 1

  • The first stage of labour is divided into three phases: latent, active and transitional phase.
  • Early labour, or the latent phase of labour, often lasts the longest. This phase varies widely between each woman. You may be in labour for hours, and sometimes even days, during which time your cervix will start to dilate.
  • Irregular and painful contractions will start during this phase and they’ll continue to build up both in intensity and frequency. You can expect to feel these contractions every five to 20 minutes, and they’ll last between about 30 and 45 seconds.
  • Some women can expect to experience some or all of the following symptoms during early labour: menstrual-like cramps, backache, indigestion, diarrhoea, lower abdominal pressure, blood-tinged mucus and a sensation of warmth in your abdomen.
  • The second phase of labour, called active labour, is usually shorter than the first phase, and lasts between two and three-and-a-half hours. First-time moms usually take a little longer to dilate fully, but active labour should go much more quickly if you’ve already had a vaginal birth.
  • During the second phase your contractions will become stronger and longer, lasting about 40–60 seconds. You can now expect to feel the contractions every three to four minutes. You won’t have as much time to rest between contractions anymore, and you should be in hospital or the birthing centre by now.
  • Some women can expect to feel all or some of the following symptoms: increasing pain and discomfort with contractions (unless you’ve had an epidural, in which case you won’t feel pain), leg discomfort or heaviness, fatigue, increasing backache, if your waters haven’t yet broken, they might be broken artificially now, you’ll also notice more blood-tinged mucus.
  • The third phase of labour is called the transitional period. This is the most demanding, but also the quickest phase of labour.
  • Your contractions will now become very strong, lasting 60 seconds or more, occurring every two-and-a-half to three minutes.
  • It can take anything from 15 minutes to an hour, to as long as three hours before you’re fully dilated.
  • During the transitional period, some women can expect to feel all or some of the following symptoms: intense pain with contractions (unless you’ve had an epidural or other pain medication, in which case, you won’t feel the pain), a tightening sensation in your throat or chest, strong pressure in your lower back and perineum, your legs may cramp and tremble uncontrollably, you may be nauseous and vomit, you may have rectal pressure, you may feel very warm and sweaty, and you may be exhausted and feel drowsy between contractions.

Stage 2

  • Once your cervix is fully dilated, the second stage of labour will begin – pushing and delivering your baby. This stage usually takes between 30 minutes to an hour, but can sometimes take two to three hours, or only 10 minutes or less.
  • Your contractions will now be more regular than during the transitional phase; they’ll still last 60 seconds or longer, but might be further apart (about two to five minutes).
  • You may feel pressure on your rectum as your baby’s head moves down the birth canal and you may also feel the urge to push (if you’ve had an epidural, you might not have this urge due to the loss of sensation). Your baby’s head will now begin to crown. You may experience a tingling, stretching, burning or stinging sensation at your vagina as your little one’s head starts to show.
  • Your baby will finally born and the umbilical cord will be cut.
  • Baby will be dried off and she’ll be lifted onto your belly to bond with you, if there are no complications.

Stage 3

  • The third and final stage of childbirth is delivering the placenta, which can last anything from five minutes to 30 minutes or more.
  • You’ll still experience mild contractions, about one minute apart, but you may not even feel them.
  • The placenta will separate from your uterine wall after the first few contractions and you’ll be asked to push gently to help expel the placenta.
  • Now that the placenta is out, your doctor will make sure that everything is intact. She’ll also check your uterus to make sure no fragments of the placenta were left behind.
  • After the delivery, you may feel overwhelmingly exhausted and you may be very hungry and thirsty if you weren’t allowed to eat and drink during the birth.
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