The Different Phases of Labour: What You Need to Know and What to Expect During Labour

Labour is typically divided into several phases: the dilation phase, the expulsion phase, and the placental phase. Understanding these can provide a better understanding of where you are in the process. Here's a simple guide to help you navigate the various stages of labour.

Ingela Ågren

Read time: 4 m

Verified by Ingela Ågren

Certified Midwife

The Different Phases of Labour: What You Need to Know and What to Expect During LabourPhoto: Preggers

The dilation phase is usually divided into two stages: the latent phase and the active phase. The latent phase marks the beginning of labour and extends from when the cervix begins to soften and open until it is about 5 cm dilated. This phase can last several hours, up to a day, or sometimes even longer. Contractions tend to be irregular at first and may be mild, but they gradually become more frequent and intense over time. It is not uncommon to experience some light bleeding mixed with mucus from the vagina, indicating that the mucus plug has come loose. It is common to have a loose bowel during this phase and to need to go to the toilet frequently. If your water breaks, it is important to contact the labour ward for advice. It is normal for the water to be clear or slightly pink. Many pregnant women choose to stay at home during the latent phase.

Tips for managing the latent phase: Rest as much as you can between contractions. Sometimes it can be difficult to eat but try to take in energy. Small snacks often can be easier to eat than large meals. A bath or shower can help you relax and feel pain-relieving. A warm wheat bag and massage can also be comforting. Paracetamol can also help. Some midwifery clinics also have TENS machines available for rent to use as pain relief at home.

The active phase usually begins when the cervix has dilated to about 5 cm and continues until it is fully open. During this phase, contractions are usually more regular, and the dilation of the cervix typically happens faster than in the latent phase.

Tips for managing the active phase: Being active and changing your position can facilitate the labour process. It's good to alternate between upright positions and positions where you can rest a bit. Make sure you get enough fluids and energy. Experiment with what kind of pain relief you need. Common pain relief options during labour include a bath, shower, heat, TENS, sterile water injections, nitrous oxide, and epidural.

The expulsion phase can be divided into two stages: the descending phase and the pushing phase. During labour, the baby's head moves down through the pelvis towards the pelvic floor. It is common to feel increased downward pressure during this phase. The head presses against the rectum, and it can feel like needing to go to the toilet. When the baby's head has moved down, the urge to push increases. It is common for it to burn and stretch a lot when the head appears at the vaginal opening and is about to be born.

Tips for managing the pushing phase: Try to relax and feel heavy in the buttocks. Trust your body's natural instinct to push. The midwife usually applies heat to the perineum to reduce the risk of tearing, which can often feel nice. Towards the end, the midwife may give instructions for the birthing to proceed slowly to reduce the risk of tearing.

The placental stage begins once the baby is born and continues until the placenta and membranes have been expelled. After childbirth, the uterus contracts, which causes the placenta to detach from the uterine wall. Usually, with the consent of the person giving birth, an injection of oxytocin is given to help the uterus contract. Sometimes the placenta comes out by itself, but sometimes the midwife helps by gently pulling on the umbilical cord. Most placentas are delivered within 30 minutes after the baby is born.

Ingela Ågren

Verified by Ingela Ågren

Certified Midwife

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