What really happens during labour?

Labour is an incredible process of transformation, and your body will go through some natural changes in order to bring your baby into the world. Here's what happens during the three different stages of labour and what you can expect during this time.

The Stages of Labour

Any mum will tell you that having a baby isn't called “labour” for nothing – it's a big job! However, it's a job your body was designed to do, and you'll have plenty of support to help you through. Plus, you've got the best reward ever waiting at the end of it – meeting your baby!

The process has three “stages,” each of which accomplishes a specific job.

First stage

The beginning of labour can feel a bit different for different women. You might experience:

  • period-like pains
  • backache
  • a slightly upset stomach or feeling a bit sick
  • feeling a bit 'under the weather'

All of this means your body is getting ready for the work ahead!

Your contractions will become stronger and more regular during this first stage; once they are happening every five minutes and last 30-60 seconds, it's time to ring the midwife or maternity ward for advice on when to come in. It's perfectly okay to walk around if you feel like it – in fact, this may help move the labour along.

Once your labour is established, contractions will come about three or four times in ten minutes and be strong enough that it's difficult to speak during them. By this point, you'll usually be with your midwife or in hospital, and you can ask for pain relief if you need it.

Sometime during this stage you may notice that you've passed a bit of mucus, which might be pink or slightly tinted with blood. This is called a “show,” and it's totally normal – though if there is lots of blood, you should ring the hospital or midwife straightaway.

Breaking waters (amniotic fluid)

At some point during your labour, the membrane containing your “waters” - the amniotic fluid surrounding your baby in the womb - will break (or in some cases, the midwife may break it for you). Some women experience a trickle, and others a gush.

If your waters break before your labour starts, (or if you think they may have), make a note of the time and contact your maternity unit. You can wear a sanitary pad (not a tampon) to keep things dry.

Second stage

This is the big moment! The second stage of labour begins when your cervix (the mouth of the uterus) is fully dilated, and ends with the birth of your baby. Your midwife may check and tell you that you're “at 10 centimetres,” and you'll probably feel an overwhelming need to push.

If this is your first baby, this stage could take over an hour, but mums having their second or third babies often find it goes very quickly.

Once your baby's head is visible, your midwife might ask you to stop pushing and pant instead. This helps to slow things down and avoid a tear. When this happens, you'll know you're nearly there – your baby should appear with the next contraction!

When your little one is born, the midwife will place your baby onto your chest for some well-earned skin to skin contact and then cut the cord connecting your baby to the placenta. Some babies might need a bit of oxygen or some help to clear out the nose and mouth, but the midwife will bring your baby to you as soon as possible for that all-important first cuddle.

Third stage

It may come as a surprise that there is a third stage of labour, especially once you’ve given birth to your baby. In fact, this stage, when you give birth to the placenta, doesn't require much effort from you - but it's very important for your postnatal health.

You can choose to have an injection to help this stage go more quickly, or you can let things proceed naturally, which may take up to an hour. The injection is given just after birth and helps the uterus to contract, gently pushing out the placenta. The actual delivery of the placenta does not hurt.

Finally, the midwife will check that your uterus is well contracted by placing her hand on your abdomen near your belly button. This is very important, because a poorly contracted uterus can cause excessive bleeding. She will then check the placenta and membranes to make sure they are all complete, because if any parts remain in the uterus, they could cause infection or bleeding.

You might experience some further pains (similiar to contractions) for a while after birth. These are called 'after pains,' and they mean that your uterus is contracting back to its pre-pregnancy size. You might feel these pains more strongly during breastfeeding; this is because breastfeeding makes your body release oxytocin, the same hormone that made your uterus contract during labour.

If you have any questions about labour please speak to your midwife, who will be happy to help you.