As the birth approaches a woman’s body begins to prepare for the labour. Signs that women may experience prior to labour include: Show (pink mucous discharge from the vagina), engagement of the baby’s head, more frequent Braxton Hicks contractions, a change in baby’s movements as they run out of space, weight loss of up to 1 kg, low pelvic pressure due to baby’s position, some diarrhoea and nesting behaviour (some women experience a surge in energy just prior to the birth). Once conditions are right labour will commence. The hormone oxytocin is responsible for the strong, regular contractions of labour. Oxytocin release is triggered by a centre in the brain and it causes the uterus to contract. Labour contractions feel very different to Braxton Hicks contractions that women experience during their pregnancy. The most important difference is that labour contractions come regularly. Each one starts gradually, builds to a peak and then fades away. Typically when labour begins contractions are short in length, around 20 to 30 seconds long. As labour progresses, contractions become gradually longer and stronger. Contractions need to be around 60 seconds long to dilate or open the cervix. Labour contractions can last up to 90 seconds. When a women gets true labour contractions they take all of her concentration and she is unable to talk through them. In about 10 to 15% of labours the waters will break first, before any contractions have occurred. In the remainder of labours, the waters will break towards the end of the first stage or in the second stage of labour (Robertson, 1999).

When should I go to the hospital?

Most women spend the early part of their labour at home. Advise as to when is the best time to come into hospital varies. The most important guide is the length and strength of the contractions. Remembering that contractions need to be around 60 seconds long before they efficiently dilate the cervix. It is less important to take note of the time between contractions. Contractions can be two minutes apart but be very mild in strength. You can contact the hospital and speak to a midwife if you are requiring guidance. You should contact the hospital if:

  • You are experiencing regular, strong contractions
  • Your waters break
  • You start bleeding

How many stages does labour have?

Labour has three stages simply known as first, second and third stage. During the first stage of labour the opening of the uterus, called the cervix, goes from being closed to fully open (or 10cm dilated). The strong, regular contractions cause the cervix to open. During the second stage of labour the baby descends down the birth canal and is born. Women during the second stage of labour assist the birth of the baby by pushing during the contractions. The third stage of labour begins after the baby is born and ends with the birth of the placenta and membranes (or after birth).

How long is labour?

It is impossible to anticipate the length of labour. Every woman and every labour is individual. In general women expecting their first baby will take longer than women expecting a subsequent baby (though this does not always hold true). For a first baby, the average length of the first stage of labour is 12 to 14 hours, the second stage 1 to 2 hours and the third stage 5 to 60 minutes. Women expecting a subsequent baby can expect the first stage to last around 6 to 8 hours and the second stage lasting from 5 to 60 minutes. Remember that these are only averages. Women can have quick labours and long labours and anything in between (Robertson, 1999).

What can I do to help my self through labour?

Informing yourself of your many options is really helpful. You can do this by reading, attending prenatal classes or speaking to others. One of the main things that research has found helpful is the presence of continuous support person. This person may be your partner, friend, relative or an experienced labour support person. It is important to feel comfortable in the environment you have chosen to give birth. You can make a labour room more comfortable by turning down the lights, closing the door, bringing some personal items and moving the furniture to suit your self. It is important to avoid dehydration in labour by drinking regularly. Eating small, light snacks in early labour is also helpful. Use up-right positions as these help stimulate the labour process and it is much easier to get comfortable (Robertson, 1999).

Reference List

Robertson, A. (1999). Preparing for birth: Mothers. Sydney: ACE Graphics.

(20th January 2000)

Jane Palmer is a mother, birth activist and midwife in private practice located in Sydney, Australia. With additional qualifications as a childbirth educator and lactation consultant, Jane works to improve pregnancy, birth and parenting options for families. 


12 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Nicole Baker
Oct 22, 2010 2:46am [ 1 ]

I'm scared as I just found out that im pregnant and the only thing I'm scared of is the giving birth part. Is it as bad as people say?

Oct 22, 2010 6:38am [ 2 ]

Hi Nicole - Congratulations on your pregnancy. Giving birth is a journey into the unknown. Knowledge helps decrease fears you may have regarding birth. You can attend classes, read and use the internet. My favourite book is "Gentle Birth Gentle Mothering" by Dr Sarah Buckley. Giving birth can be an empowering experience.

Apr 11, 2011 1:24pm [ 3 ]

I am first time pregnant and I am very excited to have my baby in my arms but the giving birth part frieghtens me. I am a baby myself when it comes to hospitals (pass out getting blood tests) and I am also very shy. I do not think i will go well with labour.

Apr 11, 2011 2:01pm [ 4 ]

Hi Hollie - Just know that you are not alone. Many women feel just as you do but this does not mean that you wont go well in labour. Educate yourself as much as possible about labour, birth and your options. A good quality childbirth education class will help. Can you talk to your midwife or doctor about your fears. Also I highly recommend doing a Hypnobirthing or CalmBirth class. We list people running these classes on this website. Put in your details and use our Find a Practitioner Search.

Jun 11, 2011 5:28pm [ 5 ]

I am expecting my first baby a month from now and am very scared when it comes to labour.Are the pains that unbearable and what can be done to go through them the best way possible?

Jun 11, 2011 6:40pm [ 6 ]

Dear Sandy - I would recommend that you go to some childbirth education classes. Women who understand what is ahead are much less frightened. If you are in Sydney I am running The Birth Workshop in July (though this might be too late for you). As an alternative you can use the Find a Practitioner Search to find a childbirth educator close to you.

stacy larder
Jul 2, 2011 7:44pm [ 7 ]

im terrified of giving birth on my own, what are some ways i can relax, im 37+1, and this is baby number 4

Jul 13, 2011 8:09am [ 8 ]

Hi Stacy are you able to employ a midwife or doula to be there for you. To find a midwife or doula close to you search in our Find a Practitioner Search

fadahunsi Olabisi
Feb 7, 2012 6:20am [ 9 ]

‎​ȋ̝̊̅ quite agree with jane,handling labour pain and childbirth has a lot to do with preparing your mind.Reading books,listening to experience mothers and asking lots of question

julie carter
Mar 18, 2012 2:53pm [ 10 ]

my daughter is expecting her first child in 10 days.I need advice.She said it feels like someone has kicked her in the groin.She has uncomfortable feeling in her pelvis.Should i take her to the hospital or just keep an eye on her

Nov 28, 2013 9:46pm [ 11 ]

Hello. I am trying for my second baby and am worrying about Labour already. My first was born at 35 weeks after weeks on and off in Labour. When I finally had my little boy (luckily all was well) the birthing experience was very negative. I had the wrong support team with me and had to go to a strange hospital and was not allowed to follow my birth plan (as he was prem). My labour was also very quick (8 hours in total) even though my boy was born at 3.5kg. Now I worry about having the same experiences again. How can I ensure that I can follow my birth plan and is it likely that I will have a quick Labour again? Thank you.

Amy Worley
Jan 14, 2014 3:59pm [ 12 ]

@Nicole Baker- It really depends on the person, DONT let what what every one says freak you out! It's different for every woman & pregnancy! I got so freaked out by what everyone told me i cried & cried as soon as i got there to be induced, but my labor was so easy! Dont listen to what everyone says i'm sure everything will be fine

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