Find out about the changes that will take place in the three stages of labour.
The onset of labour differs for most women. Some women experience mild, short, regular contractions that have a long interval between them, e.g. 20 minutes. As labour establishes, the contractions become longer and more painful and have a shorter interval, e.g. every five to 10 minutes. Some women start labour with contractions that are of long duration, feel painful and occur frequently, e.g. every five minutes.
The complete process of labour and delivery is divided into three stages.
1. The first stage, when the cervix gradually opens up (dilates).
2. The second stage, when the baby is pushed down the vagina and is born (this is sometimes separated into two phases – the passive or descent phase with no pushing, and the active or pushing phase).
3. The third stage, when the placenta comes away from the wall of the womb and is also pushed out of the vagina.
First stages of labour
During pregnancy, your cervix is closed and plugged with mucus, to keep out infection. Your cervix is long and firm, giving a strong base to your uterus (womb). It’s also in a position that points slightly towards your back (posterior position). In the first stage of labour, your cervix has to move forward (anterior position), ripen and open, so your baby can be born. By the end of this stage your cervix will be fully dilated, and open to about 10cm in diameter.
Second stage of labour
During the second stage of labour, you will push your baby down your vagina (the birth canal) and meet him or her for the first time. You’ll feel the pressure of your baby’s head low down in your pelvis, and with each contraction, you may have two or three strong urges to bear down. Listen to your body, and let it push in response to the urges. Take a few breaths between pushes. With every bout of bearing down, your baby will move through your pelvis a little, but at the end of the contraction, he’ll probably slip back a little again.
Don’t worry, as long as your baby keeps gradually moving down, you’re doing okay. When your baby’s head is very far down in your pelvis, you’ll probably feel a hot, stinging sensation. This will happen as the opening of your vagina starts to stretch around your baby’s head. Your midwife will tell you when she can see your baby’s head, and may ask you to stop pushing and to take short, panting breaths. This helps you to resist the urge to bear down for two or three contractions, so that your baby is born gently and slowly. Taking this approach also helps you to avoid a tear or an episiotomy. Your midwife may use warm compresses to support your perineum as your baby is born for the same reason.
Third stage of labour
The third stage of labour begins once your baby is born, and ends when you deliver the placenta and the empty bag of waters that are attached to the placenta (membranes). These come away as your uterus contracts down after the birth. Your contractions will be noticeable but weaker when they begin again, as your uterus contracts down. The placenta gradually peels away from the wall of your uterus, and you may get the urge to push again. The placenta, with the membranes attached, will drop to the bottom of your uterus, and out through your vagina.
Some hospitals adopt a different procedure in relation to a managed third labour. If you are not bleeding and wish to have a natural third stage, please talk with your midwife. This is when you deliver the placenta without the help of drugs, unless they are needed. A natural third stage can take longer – upright positions, skin-to- skin contact with your baby, and starting to breastfeed your baby, may all help to stimulate contractions. When the third stage is complete, you can get to know your new baby.
The difference between early and established labour:
- Early Labour Stage – The time of the onset of labour until the cervix is dilated to 3-4 cm.
- Active Labour Stage – Continues from 4 cm until the cervix is dilated to 10 cm.
- Transition Phase Stage – Continues from 7 cm until the cervix is fully dilated to 10 cm. During the transition stage, the woman can become withdrawn and sometimes feel nauseated or have low blood pressure.
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The first 72 hours
Everything you need to know about labour positions
Home birth in Ireland