The length of labour varies from woman to woman and in each pregnancy. For first-time births, labour usually lasts 12-24 hours (Mater Hospital, 2017) and subsequent births are usually quicker.
There are three stages of labour which are explained below.
1. First Stage – Cervix dilation
This stage involves painful contractions which open, shorten, thin and stretch the cervix so the baby can travel down the birth canal for delivery. If you’ve experienced some of the early signs or symptoms of labour, the cervix may have already undergone some changes in preparation for birth.
The first stage of labour is the longest stage; about 12 hours for a first birth and 8 hours for subsequent births (Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 2020).
The first stage of labour have 3 phases:
- Latent phase: contractions are mild and not too painful. The cervix is less than 4 cm dilated.
- Active phase: contractions become more regular, get stronger and more painful. The cervix is 4-7 cm dilated.
- Transition phase: contractions become intense, more painful and closer together. They usually last for over 1 minute each and are 1-2 minutes apart. Some women start to shiver or feel nauseous. Many women find this to be the most difficult part of labour, and it can last between 5 minutes to over 1 hour. This phase is the end of the first stage as the cervix becomes fully dilated to 10 cm.
Doctors and midwives will do an internal examination every few hours to check how much you’ve dilated. Once you experience strong contractions in the active and transition phases, the cervix usually dilates at a rate of 1 cm per hour, but the dilation rate may not be constant.
If your labour is progressing slowly or there are medical concerns for you or your baby, your doctor or midwife will discuss interventions with you that may help nudge things along.
2. Second Stage – Delivery of your baby
Your doctor or midwife will let you know when it’s time to push when the cervix is fully dilated and the baby’s head can be seen (this is called ‘crowning’). You may feel a stinging or burning sensation as the vagina stretches as the baby’s head comes through.
You may need to try different positions to find the position that is most comfortable for pushing. You will instinctively feel the urge to push as your baby travels out of the birth canal, and your doctor or midwife will also help guide you.
The second stage of labour lasts longer for a first birth (up to 2 hours) and shorter for subsequent births (up to 1 hour) (NSW Health, 2015).
As soon as your baby is delivered they are usually placed on your chest to start skin-to-skin contact and bonding. The baby’s cord will also be clamped and cut within 5 minutes after birth.
3. Third Stage – Delivery of the placenta
Your baby is finally born but labour doesn’t end until the placenta is delivered. You will have contractions to push the placenta out but they will not be as painful or intense as contractions in the first and second stage.
You may be given an injection in the thigh with a medication to help the placenta peel away from the uterus and prevent heavy bleeding. After getting this injection, the placenta is usually delivered within 10 minutes.
If you choose not to get the injection and wait for the placenta to be delivered naturally, this stage can take about 1 hour.
- Mater Hospital (2017), Labour and birth information [webpage]. Accessed online: http://brochures.mater.org.au/brochures/mater-mothers-hospital/labour-and-birth-information
- NSW Health (2015), Having a baby [book]. Accessed online: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/kidsfamilies/MCFhealth/Publications/having-a-baby.pdf
- Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2020), Labour and Birth [webpage]. Accessed online: https://ranzcog.edu.au/womens-health/patient-information-resources/labour-and-birth