Pregnancy is not a walk in the park, all mums-to-be know that. However, if there is a part of being pregnant that new parents dread, it’s probably the culmination of the whole nine months – labour and delivery. So, how do you know if you’re already in labour? In this article, we’ll break down the 3 stages of labour and what mums can do to prepare.
While it can be really terrifying for any new (or even veteran) parent to face, they can feel more relaxed with a little preparation and information on what to expect on “the big day.”
Braxton Hicks Contractions – When to Go to the Hospital
Before labour starts, you could feel tightening in your stomach that is not consistent and it comes and goes. They feel like the real thing but they’re not. These are false labour contractions, often known as Braxton Hicks contractions. Your second or third trimester may be the beginning of these irregular uterine contractions, which are quite normal.
A contraction causes your uterus to swell before it releases. These help your body get ready for actual labour.
Remember, Braxton Hicks contraction is a brief tightening in your abdomen. They do not increase in frequency, duration or strength over time. If that’s how you’re feeling, then it’s best to wait at home for when real labour begins.
Stages of Labour
There are three distinct stages of labour, with the final one not being the delivery of your baby, but that of your placenta and membranes.
If you are currently pregnant, it’s good to know exactly what to expect in each stage. This knowledge helps you take control of your labour and birth experience and work with your body, rather than fighting the birthing process.
Here are the three stages of labour and what you can expect in each one.
In the first stage of labour, your cervix will gradually thin, soften and open, in preparation for birth.
First Stage of Labour – the Longest Stage
This stage begins when your cervix starts to soften and open and consists of three sub-stages: latent stage, active labour and transitional phase.
Latent Stage or Early Labour
The latent stage is when your cervix first starts to thin out, soften and dilate from 3 to 6 centimetres. This can take place over a few hours or even over a few days. You may start to feel some contractions but they probably won’t be at regular intervals.
Depending on your pain threshold, you may feel some discomfort at this point, or none at all and you may even carry on with your daily activities.
Here are some of the signs of this latent period that you might experience:
- ‘Bloody show‘, which is blood-stained mucus
- Loose bowel movement
- Period-like cramps
- Lower back pain
- The need to vomit
- A sudden gush or slow leak of fluid from your vagina, indicating that your waters have broken. This fluid should be clear or pinkish in colour. If you notice greenish or bloody (red) fluid, contact your doctor without delay.
Towards the end of this phase, you will start feeling more tired and restless and the discomfort you feel may intensify. You’ll feel pain in waves — starting gradually, then peaking and then fading away.
You’ll need to let your doctor know what you are experiencing, including the time between each wave of discomfort. Your doctor will tell you whether you should head to the hospital or stay at home.
Eventually, the time between each ‘wave’ of discomfort will reduce. Sometimes, early labour will start, pause for a short while, and then resume. The latent phase of labour is all about your body getting ready for birth. You can do the following to prepare for the next stage and ease your pain:
- Try to unwind (easier said than done, of course)
- Walk around in your home
- Find a comfortable position for lying down
- Ask your partner to lightly massage your back
- Practice taking deep breaths
- Meditate and listen to calming music
- Take a warm shower
When you start experiencing each one with less than three to five minutes break in between them, it’s definitely time to head to the hospital.
When to Go to the Hospital
A simple rule to follow while deciding whether to head to the hospital is the 5-1-1 rule. If your contractions last for 1 minute, with an interval of every five minutes, and have been consistent for at least an hour, then it’s time to get your hospital bag and make your way to the hospital.
Only around 10 per cent of women really experience their water breaking. Typically, the signs of labour are much slower and less obvious.
Get your partner actively involved in the birthing process
Welcome to what is considered the most painful time of labour. When active labour is deemed to have started clinically, your cervix has dilated to 6 to 7 centimetres. measurement, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Now, your contractions will be experienced more frequently and powerfully — every three to four minutes and they may last for up to 90 seconds.
You probably won’t be able to talk as you experience these powerful contractions and should instead try to focus on controlling your breathing through relaxation techniques.
Some women find walking about helps with the contractions. You could also try standing under a shower (if your hospital room is equipped with one) with the water pointing at your lower back during the surges/ waves to help ease the discomfort.
By now, your cervix is around 8 centimetres dilated and you might feel like pushing for the first time. While your contractions may be less frequent, they will be a lot more powerful than before and also last for longer. You may go through a flurry of emotions and might feel cold, sick or even get the shakes.
Here are other signs to look out for:
- Women start to focus on the contractions.
- They tend to stop talking in between contractions.
- The contractions get closer together and start lasting longer.
- When the natural expulsive reflex kicks in, women may feel nauseous, hot or cold (extremes), shaky and feel the urge to bear down.
This is probably the most challenging phase of the birthing process and you might even feel like you just cannot go on. But the good news is that the end is very close and soon, your cervix will be fully dilated and you’ll be holding your little munchkin in your arms for the first time.
Tips for the Birth Partner for the First Stage of Labour
- Be present and provide emotional support.
- Offer physical comfort measures like massage or warm compresses.
- Help with breathing techniques and encourage relaxation.
- Keep the birthing environment calm and peaceful.
- Stay hydrated and nourished.
- Offer encouragement and positive affirmations.
- Advocate for the birthing person’s needs and preferences.
- Stay informed about the progress of labour.
- Assist with position changes and walking if desired.
- Be flexible and adaptable to changing needs and circumstances.
Second Stage: Pushing and Giving Birth to Baby
By now, you will be fully dilated (cervix fully open) and ready to push your baby out. You may experience the following:
- Longer, stronger contractions with only a minute break between them
- Pressure on your bottom
- A strong urge to push
- Nausea, vomiting, shivering
- A sensation of stretching/ burning in your vagina
Try to focus on your contractions, breathing through them and resting in in-between.
This stage can be as quick as 20 minutes, or it can last for a few hours. Generally, if you have had a baby before, the second stage of labour will be shorter. But if you’re a first-time mum or if you had an epidural, this stage of labour might take longer.
Go with your natural urge to push.
The urge to push, when it arrives, can be overwhelming. Rather than panicking, listen to your midwife/obstetrician and your body’s own urge to push and when it is time, push with all your might. Then rest in between each contraction to conserve your energy for the next one.
You might also feel (apart from the need to push), pressure down there and a strong urge to go to the toilet, the baby’s head moving down and a feeling of stretching/ burning in your vagina.
Now, with each contraction, your baby’s head will be pushed lower down in your pelvis and through the birth canal a little bit more.
As your baby’s head emerges or ‘crowns’, try to pant rather than push.
Tips for the Support Person or Birth Partner for the Second Stage of Labour
- Encourage the birthing person to follow their body’s natural urge to push.
- Provide physical support, such as holding their hand or offering counter-pressure.
- Offer words of encouragement and praise.
- Help the birthing person find comfortable positions for pushing.
- Assist with relaxation between contractions.
- Be prepared to offer ice chips or water for hydration.
- Stay positive and calm during this intense phase.
- Respect the birthing person’s choices and preferences.
- Communicate with the healthcare provider regarding progress and any concerns.
- Celebrate and support the birthing person as they bring their baby into the world.
Once your little one’s head is out, the rest of his body will slip out. It’s done — you’ve just given birth to a brand new little human being, your very own daughter or son and now, you are officially a mum!
Third Stage: Delivering the Placenta
You will probably be cradling your baby by now and are trying to catch your breath, but the birthing process is still not over.
In this last stage, you’ll be delivering that all-important organ that provided incredible nourishment to your baby during pregnancy — the placenta.
You’ll feel contractions again naturally, or sometimes, your doctor may give you an injection to speed up the process. These contractions will be nothing compared to those you experienced earlier.
You might feel a heaviness in your vagina and then the placenta and membranes should easily come out with one or two pushes, however, it can range from 5 up to 30 minutes.
Your doctor will check you to make sure the whole placenta was delivered, and that your uterus is contracting to stop the bleeding from where the placenta detached from your uterus.
Read this article if you’d like to learn about the process of placenta encapsulation and where you can get it done.
WATCH: The three stages of labour
What Happens After Giving Birth?
With the baby successfully delivered and the placenta flushed out entirely from your body, you may now begin to relax.
After giving birth to your baby and delivering the placenta, there are several important things that happen as you enter the postpartum period. Here’s a list of what to expect:
- The healthcare provider checks the mother’s vital signs and assesses any tears or episiotomy.
- Breastfeeding or skin-to-skin contact is encouraged to initiate bonding and breastfeeding.
- The uterus begins to contract and shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size.
- Lochia, a vaginal discharge, occurs as the body sheds excess blood and tissue.
- The healthcare provider monitors the mother’s recovery and assesses for any complications.
- Postpartum care and support are provided, including pain management and guidance on caring for the newborn.
- Emotional adjustments and hormonal changes may occur, including baby blues or postpartum depression.
- The mother and baby may stay in the hospital for a designated period for observation and recovery.
Well done mum — your birthing process is now officially over and a brand new phase of your life with your baby begins.
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