The process of labour is traditionally divided into three different stages. The 1st stage being when the cervix dilates, the 2nd when the baby is being pushed down and out the birth canal and the 3rd being the birth of the placenta. Some caregivers also refer to a 4th stage, being the recovery period for an hour or so after the birth.
Within these three main stages there can also be other recognisable phases. These phases usually relate to the intensity of the labour and may become apparent when the woman displays certain emotional and physical signs as her labour progresses. Caregivers often look for these signs, (instead of / or in combination with internal vaginal examinations) to help them establish where the labour may be and how it is progressing.
Learning to recognise the various phases of your labour, as well as the definitions of the three main stages, will help you understand the labour process better and assist you in the development of strategies to help you deal with each stage or phase.
The following is a guide to the various phases and stages of labour.
Early phase of 1st stage labour
Active phase of 1st stage labour
End of 1st stage or transition
2nd stage, resting phase
2nd stage, active or pushing phase
Crowning, end of 2nd stage
3rd stage of labour
Prelabour is when a woman starts to feel some physical signs that labour could be starting. This could be one sign, or more likely a combination of physical signs such as a show, diarrhoea (or loose bowel motions), nausea, possibly vomiting, backache, period pain, perhaps the waters breaking or some mild to moderate regular or irregular contractions. During this time the cervix softens and ripens, thins out and starts to open slightly (or dilate) up to about one to three centimetres.
Image 3-01 shows the cervix before labour, when it is still long, thick and closed.
Image 3-02 shows the cervix starting to thin and soften before it begins to open in prelabour.
Updated November 2007
Stables D. and Rankin J. Physiology in Childbearing with Anatomy and Related Biosciences. 2004, Bailliere Tindall, Edinburgh.
Last revised: Saturday, 24 November 2012
This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.