Stages of labour

There are three stages of labour. The first stage is when your cervix is opening and your baby is moving down the birth canal. The second stage is when your baby is being born and the third stage is when the placenta is delivered.

Understanding the stages of birth can help you know what is happening during your labour. 

The first stage

This stage begins when the cervix starts to soften and to open. First stage is complete when the cervix has opened to around 10 centimetres.

In the very early stages of labour, your cervix softens and becomes quite thin. This can go on for hours; days even. During this early stage you may feel nothing at all for some time. Eventually, you might feel some pain and discomfort but there is no pattern and the contractions are irregular.

In early labour you may have: 

  • a blood-stained mucus discharge called  a ‘show’
  • lower back pain
  • period-like pain that comes and goes
  • loose bowel motions
  • a sudden gush or a slow leak of fluid from the vagina when your waters break or your membranes rupture. The ‘waters’ should be clear or slightly pink. (A greenish or bloody colour can indicate a problem with the baby and you will need to see a doctor or contact your hospital immediately)
  • an urge to vomit (it is quite common to vomit during labour).

In early labour, your body is preparing for birth. Things you can do:

  • stay at home for as long as you can
  • have regular snacks so that you are building your energy reserves
  • rest as much as possible; if it’s night time try and sleep
  • try relaxing in a bath or a shower
  • go to the toilet regularly and empty your bowels (do a poo) if you can.

Eventually, towards the end of the first stage of labour, you will start feeling a little more restless and tired and your pain will become more intense. The pain will come like waves, starting small and building to a climax and then falling away again. As you move closer to second stage, the time between each wave will be smaller. When there is less than three to five minutes between each wave it is time to go to the hospital.

When to go to hospital

It’s not always clear whether labour has started. If you’re not sure or you are worried, call your hospital. Sometimes just the process of talking through your symptoms is enough to help you relax. Alternatively, during the course of the conversation, you and the midwife may decide it’s time to see a midwife.

The midwife will ask you how and where you feel your contractions, how often the contractions come and how long they last. This will help them to know how much your labour has progressed.

If there are strong signs of labour, such as your waters breaking, regular contractions or blood loss, it’s a good idea to contact the hospital anyway. 

If you are not in labour or if the labour is not yet established, depending on your situation, it is generally better to stay at home. Research has shown that women labour much better if they stay at home in the early stages.

The second stage

Second stage describes the period of time from when the cervix is fully dilated to when the baby is born. 

In second stage you may have:

  • longer and stronger contractions, with a one to two minute break in between
  • increased pressure in your bottom
  • the desire or urge to push
  • shaky cramps, nausea and vomiting
  • stretching and burning feelings in your vagina.

Things you can do in the second stage:

  • concentrate on your contractions and rest in between
  • try to let go and allow your body to do what it needs to do
  • try different positions – sitting, standing or walking
  • if you feel hot, a cold face washer can be very soothing
  • try a bath or shower to help you to relax and to manage the pain
  • keep up your fluids and rest when you can.

Labouring and birth in water

These days, many hospitals are set up to allow you to labour in a bath. Many women will find that this helps with relaxation and pain management. Some hospitals also make it possible for women to stay in the bath for the birth. This will usually depend on the availability of a midwife or obstetrician who is trained in water birth and whether your birth is progressing without any problems. The midwife needs good access to your baby during the birthing process and needs to be able to get you out of the bath should there be any problems. If these considerations are met, water birth is very safe.

At the Women's you can choose to labour and birth in water if it is considered safe for you and your baby


When the urge to push arrives it can be overwhelming. The pushing phase varies for each woman but can last for up to two hours, usually less if you have had a baby before. Aside from the urge to push, you are likely to feel:

  • pressure, and a strong urge to do a poo
  • stretching and burning in your vagina
  • the baby’s head moving down.

The best thing you can do during this phase is to try and breathe deeply, relax and follow your body’s urge to push. Trust and listen to your midwife who will guide you.

The third stage

The third stage begins after your baby is born and finishes when the placenta and membranes have been delivered.

In the third stage you may have:

  • more contractions to expel the placenta
  • a feeling of fullness in your vagina.

The midwife will usually pull on the cord to deliver the placenta but may ask you to help by gently pushing.


The Women’s does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided on the Website or incorporated into it by reference. The Women’s provide this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for assessing its relevance and accuracy. Women are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest Emergency Dept.