Labour is here! You are so close to meeting your little baby – how exciting! Labour is a big physical and emotional event for your body, so it pays to do some preparation and education in the lead up to the big day. Learning about what to expect can help you to feel more confident leading into your birth. In this article I explain the stages of labour, what a contraction is and the difference between early labour and active labour.
Stages of Labour
We used to think that labour had three distinct stages, however recent research is showing that the stages are more fluid and do not have a defined start and end. In the last few weeks and days of pregnancy, the cervix (opening to the womb/uterus) begins to thin and soften. When contractions begin, they can be quite sporadic however, in time they will move closer together and follow a regular pattern. In active labour most women are having a contraction every 3-4 minutes.
As labour progresses the cervix opens, and your baby moves down with each contraction. In time, their head starts to emerge, followed by their body and then they are usually lifted (either by your midwife, doctor or yourself!) and placed on your chest for skin-to-skin contact.
After your baby is born, your body will then birth the placenta. The placenta birth generally happens within 30-60 minutes after the birth of your baby.
Early Labour vs Active Labour
Early labour refers to the time in labour where your contractions are still quite sporadic and are not following a regular pattern. For example - you may have a contraction now, one in five minutes and then the next contraction may not be for 15 minutes. This stage of labour can sometimes last quite a few hours or even a day or two – is it important to rest, keep hydrated and eat snacks to keep your energy up.
Active labour is when the contractions are coming very regularly, and there is only a 3-5 min gap in between contractions. This is often when we would recommend heading to the hospital.
What is a contraction?
A contraction is the uterus muscles working to help draw the cervix up and open, and also helping to move baby down. Each contraction that you have helps the cervix to dilate and open. In pregnancy the cervix generally stays tightly closed, then during labour the contractions help it to slowly open and dilate. As labour progresses the cervix opens more and more, until it is open enough for your baby to pass through (approximately 10 cm dilated). At the same time the contractions are helping baby to move down into the birth canal.
How long does labour last?
Every labour is different and it’s not possible to predict the length of labour. Some women have quite short labours of only a few hours, others have labour that lasts a few days. On average, labour for a woman having her first baby will last between 10-16 hours. Labour is usually shorter for women not having their first baby.
Birthing your Baby
Once the cervix is completely open the uterus becomes very strong and pushes your baby down with each contraction. This is what we would traditionally refer to as the ‘pushing’ phase of labour. This phase can last 1 -2 hours with your first baby but is generally about half the time for subsequent births. Pushing is instinctual for your body – just as your body knows how to empty your bowels when you go to the toilet, when to pull your hand away when you touch something hot, and how to digest your food, it also knows how to ‘push’ your baby out. This is an instinctual reflex that we have during birth.
In time your baby’s head will start to crown – this is when their head is emerging. Remember that your body is designed to stretch to allow your baby to be born. Often women can fear this part of labour, but for many women, it is more manageable than contractions as they know they are only minutes (or seconds) away from meeting their baby.
Learning as much as you can about labour and birth will help you to understand what is happening on the day and contribute to feeling less overwhelmed. As I always say, knowledge really is power!
Article written by PBC Expo Midwife Hannah