The three stages of labour and what to expect

Corbis | C-Section Debate

by Christie Mudie |

You might have written (and re-written) your perfect birth plan and once the big moment has arrived you’ll discover that every labour is different – and rarely go according to plan. But yours should, at least, follow a predictable pattern

Backache. Waters breaking. Contractions. These are often signs that labour is starting and your baby is on his way.

But there’s still a little way to go before you (finally) meet your newborn…

Stage one

The first stage often lasts between 10 and 12 hours on average. Your early contractions at this stage may feel like period pains and are not normally too uncomfortable. But as they build they’ll last longer and feel much stronger – you can take some pain relief such as paracetamol or a TENS machine, to help ease your discomfort.

Read more: 26 ways to reduce labour pain (that really work!)

Try to stay as active as possible during the early part of this stage. Most women find they are more comfortable staying at home for a few hours, but it’s best to call the hospital or your midwife who can advise the best course of action.

Related: Is it safe to sleep in early labour?

Once you arrive at hospital, your midwife will give you an internal exam to check how dilated you are – once you’re 4cm or more you’re in ‘active labour’ and will be taken to the ward to have your baby. This is when you’ll start to decide whether you want pain relief.

Read more: Give Me Everything! The Pros and Cons Of Labour Pain Relief

During this stage the muscles in your uterus contract to open your cervix (neck of the womb) so your baby can start making his way through.


Some women may experience a transition period between stages one and two of labour, where contractions get very intense, as your cervix becomes fully dilated. 
It is common for women to switch off and lose focus of their surroundings during this stage. But, although this can seem like the hardest part of labour, making you feel shaky, nauseous and panicky, it’s usually the shortest stage – often lasting only 15 to 20 minutes.
Your baby‘s head is starting to descend now, so you might even feel like you’re going to do a poo but don’t worry, this is normal and is actually a good sign. You might also feel the urge to push, but try not to as it’s still too early as you’re still not fully dilated.

At the end of the transition, the first stage of labour is over, and once it’s finished you’ll be fully dilated (10cm) and ready to push.

Stage two

The second stage of your labour, which often lasts between one and two hours.

If you feel like you need to push, tell your midwife. It’s important she can ensure you’re fully dilated first, as doing it prematurely can increase the risk of tearing your cervix.

Staying in an upright position is often best at this stage, so gravity can help your baby come down the birth canal. But listen to your midwife’s advice to know exactly what’s best for you.

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for after nine months of expanding waistlines, weird cravings and those pesky mood swings –  it’s time to meet your baby. Once you’re fully dilated, your baby will move down the birth canal. Eventually, his head will crown and you can even reach down and touch it.

Once the head and shoulders are out, it won’t be long until the rest of him is too, and you’ll be able to cradle your baby in your arms for the first time.

Stage three

Even though you’ll be holding your precious bundle in your arms by now, labour’s not quite over yet.

It’s time to deliver the placenta. You might feel contractions as this happens, and they can be quite powerful but don’t worry, this is normal. It’s also common to feel shaky because of the change in body temperature and loss of fluid, as well as the sheer effort of childbirth.

Delivering the placenta can take between five minutes and one hour and you can get a syntocinon injection to speed up the process. Don’t worry about any more pain though, most women don’t notice passing the placenta at all.

Plus, you’ll probably too busy staring at your gorgeous little one to notice.

Congratulations mummy!

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