Stages of labour

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First stage of labour
Second stage of labour 
Third stage of labour 

The three stages of labour explained

Labour is the physical process during which your uterus contracts and your cervix opens to allow your baby to come out into the world.

The first stage consists of the early, active and transitional phases. Your cervix will dilate throughout these phases to a full ten centimetres. The second stage of labour is the pushing stage when you actually give birth to your baby, and third stage is when you deliver your placenta. 

First stage of labour

The first stage of labour is the longest, and can last for quite a few hours, especially if it’s your first baby, so don't panic when the signs start.

Possible signs of labour

Early labour feelings may include:

  • Feeling sick or nauseous
  • Tightening of the abdomen
  • Lower tummy or back pain – like period pain
  • Diarrhoea

For many women, the very first sign of getting ready for labour is a cramping feeling - a bit like period pains. You may also have a bit of pain in your lower tummy or back. Some women can also have some diarrhoea or feel sick or nauseous.

During the early stages of labour you may not feel like eating very much, so it’s a good idea to have light meals like soup, cereal or toast and drink plenty of water.

The feelings of discomfort may not feel like anything unusual at first, but if you are in labour they will gradually develop into more regular and intense pains, otherwise known as contractions

Getting your show

A plug of mucus has been sealing your cervix while you’ve been carrying your baby. When it comes away it is known as a show and means your cervix is starting to change and open. Sometimes women experience a show a few days or even a couple of weeks before labour begins and it’s a sign of things beginning to happen.

Not all women get a show in the early stages, so don’t worry if yours hasn’t appeared yet – it’s not a big deal. Your plug will come out naturally at some stage during your labour.

Breaking waters

The Amniotic fluid that surrounds your baby throughout pregnancy is commonly known as 'waters'. When you are in labour, your waters will ‘go’ but the timing of this will vary. For some women they break early and for others it may not be until you're in active labour. Some describe the release of fluid as a trickle, others as a gush.

If your waters do break in the early stages of labour the risk of infection is increased, so it’s very important to keep your vaginal area very clean. Don’t put anything into your vagina, like a tampon and don’t have sex or any hot baths.

If your waters have broken at home you should contact your midwife straight away, regardless of whether or not you are having contractions.


Contractions are a tightening and relaxing of the muscles in your uterus, which you may feel in the front or back and they’ll feel stronger than the irregular Braxton Hicks you may have experienced during pregnancy.

If you’re in labour you’ll start to experience contractions at increasingly shorter intervals and they’ll become longer and stronger in intensity.

A typical pattern for your early phase contractions begins by lasting about 40 seconds and coming every ten minutes. By the time you’re ready to give birth; the contractions will last about a minute and come every 2 minutes. These timings are just a guide; they will vary from person to person.

Making the first stage more comfortable

For advice about how to have a more comfortable labour, read our tips for getting through labour, or if you want to know how to keep your energy levels up read our article food & drink during labour

What is slow labour?

Everyone is different and not all labours stick to a timetable! A slow labour is quite common and nothing to worry about. But if things slow down too much, it might be necessary to speed them up a bit.

Slow labour signs

Slow labour is sometimes defined as when the cervix dilates less than 0.5cm per hour over four hours. Your midwife will be aware that you are showing slow labour signs and will know just what to do.

Second stage of labour

The second stage of labour begins when your cervix has dilated to ten centimetres. And it ends with the birth of your baby!

If this is your first baby, the second stage may still take an hour or even longer to complete. But if you’ve had one or more babies already, it may take as little as five minutes.

Pushing your baby out

Your body will tell you when to push – in fact the urge will probably be overwhelming and pretty difficult to resist!

Once your baby’s head is visible, your midwife may encourage you to try and slow the process down by asking you to stop pushing and to pant instead. It’s a delicate stage and is important as it may help reduce the risk of tearing. You’ll gently push your baby out on the next contraction.

At last your baby will be born. You'll probably be encouraged to have skin-to-skin contact (if you choose to) at this point and you can say hello to each other. 

Third stage of labour

It might seem a bit odd that you’ve still got another stage of labour to go after your baby has been born! That’s because there’s still a little bit of work left to do - delivering the placenta. Don’t worry, your midwife will stay with you and guide you through it.

Delivering the placenta

Your midwife will offer you an injection to help with the delivery of the placenta. If you choose to have the injection, delivery will probably take about 5 –15 minutes. But if you decide to deliver naturally it may take up to an hour.

You’ll find that the contractions will start again enabling you to gently push your placenta down and out of your vagina.

Once delivered, your midwife will feel your tummy to check that your uterus has started to contract now the placenta has gone. The placenta will then be checked thoroughly to make sure that it is complete.

Breastfeeding straight after birth

If you asked for skin-to-skin contact after birth, your midwife will probably encourage you to try to breastfeed straight away. This allows you to spend some special time together and will help you both to bond.

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