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What happens during Labour & Birth

There are many common misconceptions about the process of giving birth. We outline the basic facts of labour.

First stage of labour

During the first stage of labour, contractions make your cervix gradually open up (dilate). This is usually the longest stage of labour.

At the start of labour, the cervix starts to soften so that it can open. This is called the "latent phase" and you may feel irregular contractions. It can take many hours, or even days, before you’re in established labour.

Established labour is when your cervix has dilated to more than 3cm and regular contractions are opening the cervix.

During the latent phase, it’s a good idea to have something to eat and drink, as you’ll need the energy once labour is established.

If your labour starts at night, try to stay comfortable and relaxed. Sleep if you can. 

If your labour starts during the day, keep upright and gently active. This helps your baby move down into the pelvis and helps the cervix to dilate. 

Breathing exercises, massage and having a warm bath or shower may help to ease pain during this early stage of labour.

When to contact your midwives

Contact your midwifery team if:

  • your contractions are regular and coming about 3 in every 10 minutes, or
  • your waters break, or
  • your contractions are very strong and you feel you need pain relief, or
  • you are worried about anything

If you go into hospital or your midwifery unit before your labour has become established, they may suggest you go home again for a while.

Once labour is established, your midwife will check on you from time to time to see how you are progressing and to offer you support, including pain relief if you need it. You can either walk around or get into a position that feels comfortable to labour in. 

Your midwife will offer you regular vaginal examinations to see how your labour is progressing. You don’t have to have these if you don’t want to.

Your cervix needs to open about 10cm for your baby to pass through. This is what's called being "fully dilated". 

In a first labour, the time from the start of established labour to being fully dilated is usually 6-12 hours. It’s often quicker in second or third pregnancies. 

When you reach the end of the first stage of labour, you may feel an urge to push.

Monitoring your baby in labour

Your midwife will monitor you and your baby throughout labour to make sure you are both coping well.

This will include using a small hand-held device to listen to your baby’s heart every 15 minutes. You’ll be free to move around as much as you want.

Your midwife may suggest electronic monitoring if there are any concerns about you or your baby, or you choose to have an epidural. Electronic monitoring involves strapping two plastic pads to your bump. These are attached to a monitor that shows your baby’s heartbeat and your contractions. 

You can ask to be monitored electronically even if there are no concerns. Having electronic monitoring can sometimes restrict how much you can move around.  

If you have electronic monitoring because of concerns about your baby’s heartbeat, but your baby’s heartbeat turns out to be fine, you can take the monitor off again.

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