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The stages of labour explained

Pregnant female feeling the pain of contraction labour in hospitalLabour and childbirth can be a daunting notion to think about. The best thing to do is to read up on exactly what happens and what to expect. You should also ask your health care provider as many questions as you can.

Labour is a series of events that brings about the dilation of the cervix, the descension of the foetus down the birth canal, the delivery of the baby and finally, the delivery of the placenta.

Here we explain the stages of labour so you’re better prepared for what is ahead.

The stages of labour explained

The First Stage

The first stage of labour is the thinning and opening of the cervix to approximately 10cm in diameter, which enables the fetal head (approximately 9.5cm at full term), to pass through.

The first stage can be divided into three phases:

  • Early Phase. The early phase is the longest phase, which may vary in time from 6 hours to 24 hours or even longer. During this phase, the cervix dilates to approximately 3cm. The intensity and frequency of the contractions may be mild and irregular – some may be so mild you don’t notice them. They  progressively grow stronger and more intense. This phase is often longer for a first pregnancy. Symptoms of early labour include period-like cramps, backache, diarrhoea, and a bloody ‘show’ when the mucous plug from the opening of the cervix dislodges.
  • Active Phase. During the active phase, the cervix dilates to around 8cm. The intensity, duration, and frequency of uterine contractions increase. The contractions help the baby descend into the pelvis, forcing the cervix to open completely.
  • Transitional Phase. In the transitional phase, the contractions increase in duration and intensity, often with very little break in between. Some women feel shaky and sick during this phase. The cervix fully dilates to 10cm in diameter.

The Second Stage

The baby now descends the birth canal. Contractions are usually strong and regular with a short break in between (to allow you to try to catch your breath). A semi-sitting or squatting position in this stage helps in the pushing and descension of the baby through birth canal.

If your waters have not already broken, they are likely to do so during this stage of labour. Most people get a strong urge to push – this means that the baby is ready to be born and each contraction brings that nearer!

Many experience a stinging feeling as the vagina stretches to allow the baby’s head to pass through. This is called ‘crowning’. Your midwife or obstetrician will be there to help the baby’s head and shoulders pass through the vagina – the rest of the body follows quickly – and your beautiful baby is born!

The Third Stage

The final stage of labour is the delivery of the placenta. A few minutes after the delivery of the baby, there will be mild labour contractions, resulting in complete delivery of the placenta and other attached membranes (membranes from the amniotic sacs). These contractions may be so mild you don’t even feel them.

What to expect after the birth

Once the baby has been born, most people feel elated and forget everything that is going on around them. As your hormones balance themselves, you may feel cold and shaky – particularly if your labour has been quick. You will experience heavy, bloody, vaginal discharge like a menstrual flow after the child birth, which lessens over the next few hours.

Hopefully this knowledge will help you along when you are in the middle of labour. It is also helpful to read about what to expect from a caesarean section, even if you don’t expect to be having one – it’s best to be prepared for any outcome.

Then once it’s all over – enjoy your magnificent new baby!

Image credit: yuliang11/123RF Stock Photo

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