Labour and Birth

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During the first stage of labour, contractions make your cervix gradually open up (dilate). This is usually the longest stage of labour.

At the start of labour, the cervix starts to soften so that it can open. This is called the “latent phase” and you may feel irregular contractions. It can take many hours, or even days, before you’re in established labour.

Established labour is when your cervix has dilated to more than 3cm and regular contractions are opening the cervix.

During the latent phase, it’s a good idea to have something to eat and drink, as you’ll need the energy once labour is established.

If your labour starts at night, try to stay comfortable and relaxed. Sleep if you can.

If your labour starts during the day, keep upright and gently active. This helps your baby move down into the pelvis and helps the cervix to dilate.

Breathing exercises, massage and having a warm bath or shower may help to ease pain during this early stage of labour.



Contact your midwifery team if:

  • your contractions are regular and coming about 3 in every 10 minutes, or
  • your waters break, or
  • your contractions are very strong and you feel you need pain relief, or
  • you are worried about anything

If you go into hospital or your midwifery unit before your labour has become established, they may suggest you go home again for a while.

Once labour is established, your midwife will check on you from time to time to see how you are progressing and to offer you support, including pain relief if you need it. You can either walk around or get into a position that feels comfortable to labour in.

Your midwife will offer you regular vaginal examinations to see how your labour is progressing. You don’t have to have these if you don’t want to.

Your cervix needs to open about 10cm for your baby to pass through. This is what’s called being “fully dilated”.

In a first labour, the time from the start of established labour to being fully dilated is usually 6-12 hours. It’s often quicker in second or third pregnancies.

When you reach the end of the first stage of labour, you may feel an urge to push.



Your midwife will monitor you and your baby throughout labour to make sure you are both coping well.

This will include using a small hand-held device to listen to your baby’s heart every 15 minutes. You’ll be free to move around as much as you want.

Your midwife may suggest electronic monitoring if there are any concerns about you or your baby, or you choose to have an epidural. Electronic monitoring involves strapping two plastic pads to your bump. These are attached to a monitor that shows your baby’s heartbeat and your contractions.

You can ask to be monitored electronically even if there are no concerns. Having electronic monitoring can sometimes restrict how much you can move around.

If you have electronic monitoring because of concerns about your baby’s heartbeat, but your baby’s heartbeat turns out to be fine, you can take the monitor off again.


Labour can sometimes be slower than expected. This can happen if your contractions are not coming often enough or aren’t strong enough, or if your baby is in an awkward position.

If this is the case, your doctor or midwife may talk to you about two ways to speed labour up: breaking your waters or an oxytocin drip.


Breaking the membrane that contains the fluid around your baby (your waters) is often enough to make contractions stronger and more regular. This is also known as artificial rupture of the membranes (ARM).

Your midwife or doctor can do this by making a small break in the membrane during a vaginal examination.



If breaking your waters doesn’t work, your doctor or midwife may suggest using a drug called oxytocin (also known as syntocinon) to make your contractions stronger. This is given through a drip that goes into a vein, usually in your wrist or arm.

Oxytocin can make contractions become stronger and more regular quite quickly, so your midwife will discuss pain relief options with you. You will also need electronic monitoring to check your baby is coping with the contractions and regular vaginal examinations to check the drip is working.



The second stage of labour lasts from when your cervix is fully dilated until the birth of your baby.

Finding a position to give birth in

Your midwife will help you find a comfortable position to give birth in. You may want to sit, lie on your side, stand, kneel or squat (although squatting may be difficult if you’re not used to it).

If you’ve had lots of backache while in labour, kneeling on all fours may help. It’s a good idea to try out some of these positions before you go into labour. Talk to your birth partner, so they know how they can help you.



Pushing your baby out

When your cervix is fully dilated, your baby will move further down the birth canal towards the entrance to your vagina. You may get an urge to push that feels a bit like you need to have a poo.

You can push during contractions whenever you feel the urge. You may not feel the urge to push straight away. If you have an epidural, you may not get an urge to push at all.

If you are having your first baby, this pushing stage should last no longer than three hours. If you have had a baby before, it should take no more than two hours.

This stage of labour is hard work, but your midwife will help and encourage you. Your birth partner can also support you.




When your baby’s head is almost ready to come out, your midwife will ask you to stop pushing and to do some short breaths, blowing out through your mouth. This is so the head can be born slowly and gently, giving the skin and muscles of the perineum (the area between your vagina and anus) time to stretch.

Sometimes, to avoid a tear or to speed up delivery, your midwife or doctor will suggest an episiotomy. This is a small cut made to the perineum. You will be given a local anaesthetic injection to numb the area first. Once your baby is born the cut, or any large tears, will be stitched up.

Find out about your body after the birth, including how to deal with stitches.

Once your baby’s head is born, most of the hard work is over. The rest of the body is usually born during the next one or two contractions. You’ll usually be able to hold your baby straight away and enjoy some skin-to-skin time together.

You can breastfeed your baby as soon after birth as you like. Ideally, your baby will have their first feed within one hour of the birth.



The third stage of labour happens after your baby is born, when your womb contracts and the placenta comes out through your vagina.

There are two ways to manage this stage of labour:

active – when you have treatment to speed things up

physiological – when you have no treatment and this stage happens naturally

Your midwife will explain both to you while you are still pregnant or during early labour, so you can decide which you would prefer.

There are some situations where physiological management isn’t advisable. Your midwife or doctor can explain if this is the case for you.


  • You’re likely to recognise the signs of labour when the time comes, but if you’re in any doubt, don’t hesitate to contact your midwife.
  • The main signs of labour starting are strong, regular contractions and a “show”. A show is when the plug of mucus from your cervix comes away.
  • Other signs that labour is beginning include your waters breaking (rupture of the membranes), backache and an urge to go to the toilet, which is caused by your baby’s head pressing on your bowel.


You may get backache or the aching, heavy feeling that some women experience with their monthly period.

New born baby being treated just after the birth


Most women’s waters break during labour, but it can also happen before labour starts. Your unborn baby develops and grows inside a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac. When it’s time for your baby to be born, the sac breaks and the amniotic fluid drains out through your vagina. This is your waters breaking.

You may feel a slow trickle, or a sudden gush of water that you cannot control. To prepare for this, you could keep a sanitary towel (but not a tampon) handy if you are going out and put a protective sheet on your bed.

Amniotic fluid is clear and a pale straw colour. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell amniotic fluid from urine. When your waters break, the water may be a little blood-stained to begin with. Tell your midwife immediately if the waters are smelly or coloured, or if you are losing blood, as this could mean you and your baby require urgent attention.

If your waters break before labour starts, phone your midwife or the hospital for advice. Without amniotic fluid your baby is no longer protected and there is a risk of infection.



At the beginning of labour:

  • You can be walking/moving about if you feel like it.
  • You can drink fluids and may find isotonic drinks (sports drinks) help keep your energy levels up.
  • You can have a snack, although many women don’t feel very hungry and some feel sick.


As the contractions get stronger and more painful, you can try relaxation and breathing exercises –

  • your birth partner can help by doing these with you.
  • Your birth partner can rub your back as it can help relieve pain.