Giving birth - first stage of labour
The first of the 3 stages of labour is when your cervix (the neck of your uterus) opens in preparation for you to give birth. During the first stage of labour, your contractions build up slowly and get stronger and become more frequent as this stage progresses.
What are the phases of the first stage of labour?
Although every labour is different, there are 3 distinct phases within the first stage of labour.
The latent phase
The first phase of the first stage of labour is called the latent phase. This is the longest phase and can last for many hours or even days. Your cervix becomes thinner and begins to open in preparation for the birth of your baby. During this phase, you may have regular or irregular contractions. Some women may not even notice their contractions during this phase, since they can be very mild. Most women stay at home during this stage of labour. You can try to rest and relax, including by doing gentle stretches or by practising mindfulness, meditation or other calming techniques. You can eat light snacks like fruit or toast, but it is better not to have a heavy meal to avoid feeling nauseous later.
The active phase
When your cervix is open (dilated) to between 4 and 6 centimetres, the active phase of the first stage of labour begins. You may experience stronger, more painful contractions than you did during the first phase. Your contractions are likely to be more regular, generally lasting between 30 to 60 seconds, 3 or 4 minutes apart. Most women choose to come to a hospital or birthing centre during this phase. During the active phase, your cervix dilates to 8 centimetres.
The transition phase
During the transition phase, your cervix becomes fully dilated, meaning that there is an opening of 10 centimetres for your baby to pass through. Towards the end of the first stage of labour, your contractions will become more painful, and you may feel pressure in your bottom or a sensation like you need to go to the toilet. This is caused by your baby pressing on your rectum. Once your cervix is fully dilated, the second stage of labour begins.
How long can the first stage of labour last?
The first stage of labour is the longest stage and can last for 12 hours if you are having your first baby, and about 8 hours if you have given birth before. However, exact times will vary significantly between each labour.
Some women do not notice contractions during the first stage of labour, particularly at the beginning, so they may only realise that they are in labour towards the end of the first stage.
When should I go to the hospital or birthing centre?
If you have had a normal and uncomplicated pregnancy, you should go to your hospital or birthing centre when you are experiencing contractions every 3 to 5 minutes, or when you are no longer coping at home. At this stage, it’s likely that your cervix will be dilated to between 4 and 6 centimetres, and you be will in the active phase of the first stage of labour.
If you have a known medical condition or pregnancy complication, your doctor or midwife may instruct you to come into the hospital earlier.
You should also call or go to your hospital or birthing centre if:
- your waters break
- there is bright red blood coming from your vagina
- you planned a caesarean birth, but go into labour before your surgery date
- your baby’s movement pattern changes or if you are concerned
Useful checklist for what to take to the hospital or birthing centre.
What support is available during the first stage of labour?
During the first stage of labour your birth partner can support you at home until you are ready to go to the hospital or birthing centre. They can try to help you relax and be as comfortable as possible. This could include:
- diming the lights and playing calming music
- giving you a gentle massage
- bringing you light snacks and drinks
- helping you with natural pain control methods, such as hot or cold water packs or breathing techniques
- physically supporting you in positions that are comfortable for you during contractions
You can also help yourself during this stage by drinking water to stay hydrated and going to the toilet regularly to keep your bladder empty. This gives the baby more space to move down and will also be more comfortable for you. Standing and moving around are also helpful to manage pain during contractions and to help to naturally progress labour.
What happens when I arrive at hospital or a birth centre?
When you arrive at the hospital or birthing centre, a midwife will feel your stomach to check the position of your baby. They will also ask you about the strength and frequency of your contractions. This will help them to know how far your labour has progressed. They will listen to your baby’s heartbeat using a Doppler or a continuous monitor to check your baby’s health. Your midwife will ask you about your pregnancy and your general health, such as what medicines you take or if you have given birth before. It can be helpful to prepare a folder containing your important medical information for your midwife.
Your midwife will also check your blood pressure to see that it has not become very high, and they may ask you for a urine sample to test for signs of infection. They may also check to see if your waters have broken, if you are bleeding from your vagina and measure how dilated your cervix is.
You will be able to share your birth plan with the team supporting your birth, including your preference for pain relief during labour. You can feel comfortable requesting pain relief at any time, and your midwife will be able to guide you regarding the different methods of pain relief that can be helpful at each stage of labour.
During the first stage of labour, your midwife will monitor you and make sure your labour is progressing as it should. Your birth partner and midwife will be able to support you during this stage.
What happens if something goes wrong?
Every labour is unique, and sometimes things don’t go according to plan. You may have to adjust your birth plan if the situation calls for it. For example, there can be labour complications in which extra medical support is needed.
Your midwife will communicate with you and your doctor to guide you to make the best decisions for you and your baby.
Listen to our podcast on understanding your choices when having a baby.
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Last reviewed: February 2022