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.
This stage begins when your cervix starts to soften and open, and consists of three sub-stages: latent stage, active labour and transitional phase.
The latent stage is when your cervix first starts to thin out, soften and dilate. 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 hospital or stay at home.
Eventually, the time between each ‘wave’ of discomfort will reduce. 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.
The latent phase of labour is all about your body getting ready for birth. During this time, you can build up your energy reserves by having regular, energy-dense snacks, resting as much as possible, having a warm, soothing bath and going to the toilet often, including, if possible, emptying your bowels.
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 8cm 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.
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, you’ll be holding your little angel in your arms for the first time.
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.
Listen to your body — try different positions such as walking, kneeling, standing, sitting or leaning over a birthing ball. Have your partner, doula or midwife gently wipe your face with a cool washcloth if you feel hot.
This stage can pass by in a few minutes, or can last for a few hours. Generally, if you have had a baby before, the second stage of labour will be shorter.
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 (conserving energy in-between).
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.
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!
You will probably be cradling your baby by now and perhaps have initiated breastfeeding, 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.
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.
Well done mum — your birthing process is now officially over and a brand new phase of your life with your baby begins.
WATCH: The three stages of labour
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