Giving birth: the stages of labour

Giving birth: the stages of labour

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Read on to learn more about the stages of labour and what to expect in the final lead up to your baby’s birth. No one knows exactly what your labour will be like on the day but it helps to be prepared.


The thought of labour can be quite daunting, especially for first-time mums. While it might be tempting to go into the delivery room ‘blind’, it’s better to be prepared for childbirth. Knowing what to expect from each stage of labour will help you to feel calmer and better informed about what’s happening (and why) during your birthing experience. 1,2,3 and breathe…

Childbirth: an overview

Labour happens in three distinct stages. On average, childbirth lasts between 12 and 14 hours for first-time mums and around seven hours for subsequent babies. This is, however, just a guide and – like every other element of pregnancy – each woman’s experience is unique. 

The first stage of labour

Think you’re in labour? Here are some of the early signs that suggest your baby is on its way:

  • Contractions have started. These start off mild (feeling similar to menstrual cramps) and spaced roughly 10 minutes apart, but gradually get stronger, more frequent and last longer as labour progresses in order to push your baby down the birth canal.
  • Your cervix dilates and thins. In this first stage, your cervix will dilate between 0cm to 8cm. You are only considered to be in active labour when your cervix is 4cm dilated. Be patient, it can take around 8 hours to reach the end of the first stage.
  • Your water breaks. This is when the fluid in the amniotic sac ruptures (painlessly, ladies!), usually towards the end of the first stage of labour. Fluid may be expelled leakily or as a gush – there’s no telling how your sac will break. And some women won’t notice them breaking at all. 

The end of this initial stage – known as transition – can be the most difficult period of labour. It lasts for around an hour with very intense contractions. You may be thinking more about labour pain relief options by now! Take a deep breath and try to remember what you learnt at antenatal classes. Once you are 10cm dilated, you’re about to move into…

The second stage of labour

With your cervix fully dilated, you are ready to push your baby out in to the world – and you will feel the urge to do so. At this point…

  • You have in the region of an hour of pushing ahead of you. Although you’ll be tired, with the end in sight you may feel more energised.
  • Contractions are around 60-90 seconds long, and coming at about 2-4 minute intervals. 
  • You’ll feel the urge to push, known as bearing down, which is caused by your baby’s head pushing down on your pelvic floor and rectum. Your midwife will tell you when to push – do the best you can to listen to her instructions and ask for direction.
  • You’re on the way to the final push. When your baby’s head is fully visible (crowning) you are reaching the end of the second stage. As your contractions continue your baby’s head will be delivered. The midwife will check the umbilical cord is not wrapped around your baby’s neck. She may also turn the baby to help her shoulders out with the next contraction. After her head and shoulders are out the rest of your baby’s body will emerge quickly, followed by a rush of amniotic fluid.

Congratulations! Your baby is finally here. 

The third stage of labour

‘The third stage?’ you ask. That’s right, you’re not quite finished with your labour yet!

For most women the elation of finally holding their newborn baby surpasses the memory of this third and final stage of labour – the delivery of the placenta. This usually takes about 10 to 20 minutes, once contractions signal that the placenta has separated from the wall of your uterus. Having just delivered a baby, this stage is often likened to one final contraction.

Midwives might gently push on your tummy to encourage the placenta’s delivery and you will be given an injection of Pitocin (oxytocin) either before or afterwards. The injection helps prevent excess bleeding and encourages your uterus to contract. Once delivered, your labour team will check that the placenta is complete and ensure none is left inside which can cause possible bleeding. 

At this point, you can lie back, relax and enjoy getting to know your brand new baby. 

Feeling nervous about your labour? It’s perfectly normal – the Woolworths baby club has advice to help calm your common labour and birth fears

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