Why is labour defined in stages?
While every labour is different, there are 3 distinct stages that can help describe the process of labour and childbirth. Some people consider the recovery period to be a fourth stage.
Defining labour in stages can help your health team know how far along you are, communicate with each other and prepare for what you and your baby need before during and after birth.
These stages all have defining features, such as the length of your contractions and the time between them. However, because every labour is different, it can be difficult for you to know exactly what stage of labour you are in. Your midwife can help you to understand what stage you are going through at any point.
The first stage
The first stage of labour is broken down into three phases.
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 (dilate) to around 4–6 centimetres in preparation for birth. During this phase, you may have regular or irregular contractions, although they are normally not painful. Some women may not notice their contractions during this phase, since they can be very mild. You can usually stay at home during this phase of labour. Try to rest and relax by doing gentle stretches or by practising mindfulness, meditation or other calming techniques.
The second phase of the first stage of labour is called the active phase. This is when your cervix dilates up to around 8 centimetres. During this phase, your contractions will become stronger and more regular. During this phase, your contractions may be around 3 or 4 minutes apart, with each contraction lasting between 30 to 60 seconds. Most women choose to come to a hospital or birthing centre during this phase.
The third phase of first stage of labour is called the transition phase. During this 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 stronger, 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.
The second stage
Once your cervix is fully dilated, the second stage of labour begins. During the second stage of labour, your uterus contracts powerfully, although your contractions may become more spaced out, to give your body a chance to rest in between. You will need to work with your body to push your baby, and out into the world.
You may feel an urge to push to help your baby be born. This is because the baby’s head is pressing down on your pelvic area. The second stage of labour can last for up to 2 hours, but it can be much quicker than this if this is not your first baby.
The second stage of labour can be painful as well as emotional for you and your partner or support person. There are several different ways to manage pain during this stage, including with medicines and non-medical treatment. It can be helpful to think ahead and discuss your ideas about pain relief with your doctor or midwife during a prenatal visit to make sure that they will be suitable for your circumstances.
The third stage
After your baby is born, the third stage of labour begins. During this stage, the placenta and the membranes that surrounded your baby in your uterus are delivered. Your midwife may ask you to push gently to help with this. You may feel contractions during this stage, but they will not be as strong as the contractions you experienced while birthing your baby.
During this stage of labour, the umbilical cord, which connected your baby to your placenta, is clamped and cut. If you would like the umbilical cord to be left intact, or to be clamped later, you should let your midwife know ahead of time so that they can arrange this. If your birth partner would like to cut the cord, talk to your midwife and add it to your birth plan.
After labour is complete, you will be able to rest, meet your baby and begin to recover your strength. The midwives in the postnatal ward or birthing centre will monitor you during your recovery, including by checking your pulse rate, blood pressure and temperature. They will feel your abdomen to check the top of your uterus and check that it has started to contract back. They will also look at your perineum to check for bruising and to make sure that you are not bleeding excessively.
Some hospitals or birthing units have a counselling or debriefing service for new mothers and their partners to check on emotional wellbeing after the birth. This is especially important if your labour did not go as expected, or if your baby needs any special care. You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby, 7 days a week on 1800 882 436 to speak with a maternal child health nurse if you have any questions or concerns, or would like to talk with someone about your birth experience.
Listen to our podcast on understanding your choices when having a baby.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: February 2022