Before labour starts, your cervix is long and firm. During the first hours of labour, the muscles of the uterus (womb) contract and help shorten and soften the cervix, so that it can dilate (open).
For first-time mothers, this stage can last from six to 36 hours.
During this time you might experience:
Contractions - some can be quite mild, like a period pain; others can be sharp and strong. Initially, the contractions will be short (between 30 to 40 seconds) and irregular. Once contractions are five minutes apart and a minute or more in length, labour is said to be 'established'.
Every labour is different. If you think you could be in labour, the first thing to do is relax and stay calm. The best place for early labour is at home.
When women who are planning to birth in a primary maternity unit or hospital stay at home until their labour is established, they are less likely to have interventions in their labour and are more likely to have a normal birth.
The second stage of labour begins when the cervix is fully dilated (open) and the baby's head moves down out of the uterus and into the vagina (or birth canal). Your job at this stage is to push the baby through the birth canal, so you'll need focused determination and energy.
The birth of your baby may take 30 minutes to an hour or longer. This second stage could be further extended if you have an epidural.
A small number of women will require assistance with their births, either by forceps or ventouse (vacuum extraction). The obstetrician will choose which is best for your situation.
Find out more about your pain relief options and coping with labour.
The final stage of labour is delivery of the placenta. There can happen in one of two ways listed below.
Your LMC can help you to decide which approach would be best for you, taking into considering your health, how your pregnancy has progressed and the type of labour and birth you experience.
Physiological third stage means waiting for your placenta to deliver spontaneously with your effort. This may take up to an hour following the birth; while you're waiting, skin-to-skin with your baby and a first breastfeed will be encouraged.
Active management involves injecting an ecbolic (contracting drug) into your leg as your baby's shoulders are born. The ecbolic speeds up placental separation and your uterus (womb) contracts down to reduce blood loss and ensure your womb remains contracted.
Please read our leaflet on caring for your whenua [PDF, 765 KB] for more information.