Te tīmatanga o te whakamamae Going into labour

You are likely to know once labour starts, but if you are not sure talk to your midwife or doctor. Find out about the signs of labour, what you may feel as labour starts, and what happens during the 3 stages.

When labour starts

Labour and birth are different for everyone, and they are different each time too. You will learn a lot:

  • from other parents
  • by talking to your midwife or doctor
  • going to classes about pregnancy, birth and parenting.

Antenatal classes

Due dates

Only about 1 in 20 pregnant people go into labour or have their pēpi on the date they are due. Most times labour starts sometime between 1 week before the due date and 2 weeks after it. Being 'overdue' means that you are still pregnant more than 2 weeks after the due date. 

You usually have time to  talk to your midwife or doctor. You do not have to go to the hospital straight away when labour starts.

Signs of labour

There are many signs of labour.

  • You get cramps low down in your tummy like period pain, or pain in your lower back (contractions). 
  • A tablespoon of blood or brown coloured, sticky mucus comes out of your vagina (a show).
  • You leak fluid that you think is wee but it is from your vagina, and it smells different. 

The only definite sign that you are in labour is having regular contractions. 

Your midwife or doctor may talk about 'established' labour. This means that:

  • the neck or your womb (the cervix) has started to open
  • your cervix is 3 to 4 cm wide
  • you are having regular, intense contractions.

Stages of labour

Midwives and doctors will often refer to the 3 stages of labour.

  • The first stage is when the neck of your womb (the cervix) stretches and opens to let baby out.
  • The second (or pushing) stage is when baby is born.
  • The third stage is when the whenua (placenta) comes out. 

First stage of labour

During the first stage of labour the neck of the the womb (the cervix) stretches and opens to let your pēpi out.

Contractions start and the cervix slowly opens until it is 10 cm wide (fully dilated), ready for your pēpi to pass through. If this is your first labour, this stage can last 6 to 36 hours.

  • Contractions

    You will feel your tummy tighten and go hard, then relax. These contractions are sometimes mild and others are sharp and painful. Your back may hurt as well. Often to start with, contractions last only a short time — 20 to 40 seconds. Contractions come and go.

    The contractions get longer and stronger and happen more often as labour goes on. They last up to a minute every 3 to 4 minutes.

    Tips to make you more comfortable

    To help you to feel more comfortable you could try:

    • a heated wheat bag on your back or your tummy
    • a massage
    • leaning forward over large cushions
    • different upright positions
    • a warm bath or shower.
  • The 'show'

    While you are pregnant there is a plug of mucus in your cervix. Just before labour starts, or in early labour, the plug comes away and you may see it pass out of your vagina.

    The show may have some blood in it — this is normal.

    Some people do not have a show, and sometimes the show happens a week or more before labour starts.

  • Your waters break

    Your pēpi grows and develops inside a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac. When it is time for your pēpi to be born, the sac breaks and the fluid drains out of your vagina. This is often called your 'waters breaking'. If the sac does not break early in labour, it happens when the cervix is fully open or just as you push your pēpi out.

    The fluid may come out slowly or as a gush of fluid. Contact your midwife or doctor straight away if:

    • the fluid is dirty-looking, greenish or brown
    • your waters break before labour starts.

When to go to the birthing centre or hospital

If it is your first labour you may feel unsure about when to go to the birthing centre or hospital. It is a good idea to talk about this with your midwife or doctor as part of your birth planning.

Getting ready for your pēpi

If you are not sure, the best thing to do is call your midwife or doctor, or the birthing centre or hospital for advice.

If your waters have broken you may be asked to come in to be checked.

If it is your first pēpi and you are having contractions but your waters have not broken, you may be asked to wait. Your midwife or doctor will make a plan with you about the best time to come in depending on your individual circumstances.

Second babies often arrive more quickly than the first. You may need to contact your midwife or doctor, the birthing centre or the hospital sooner.

If you are having a home birth your midwife will come to you.

Second stage of labour

The second stage of labour is when the pushing happens and your pēpi is born.

This stage begins when the neck of the womb (cervix) is fully open and lasts until the birth of your baby. It can take 1 to 2 hours to push out your first pēpi.

  • The need to push

    As your baby’s head moves down you will begin to feel the need to push. Your midwife or doctor will encourage you to try different positions while you are pushing out your pēpi.

  • Stretching or tearing

    The skin and muscles around your vagina need to stretch so that your baby’s head can come through. Sometimes the skin tears. After your pēpi is born your midwife or doctor will check to see whether you need any stitches.

  • The birth

    Most of the time your pēpi will be put onto you as soon as they are born. Skin-to-skin contact is the best way to:

    • keep them at the right temperature
    • encourage them to start breastfeeding.

    Starting breastfeeding — Ministry of Health 

    Your pēpi will be checked within a couple of hours of being born to make sure that they are healthy and well.

    Checking your baby at birth and soon after — Ministry of Health

Third stage of labour

The third stage of labour is when the whenua (placenta) comes out.

  • The whenua (placenta)

    After your pēpi is born you will feel some more contractions as the whenua comes away from the wall of your uterus (womb) and out through your vagina.

    The whenua is what fed and supported your pēpi while they were growing inside you.

    The cord from the whenua, which is attached to your pēpi, will be left unclamped for a at least a few minutes after the birth. Giving you an injection is sometimes recommended to make the whenua come out more quickly.

    Whether or not you will need this injection is something to discuss with your midwife or doctor in your birth planning.

    Getting ready for your pēpi

  • Caring for the whenua

    After the birth you will be asked what you want to do with the whenua. The whenua is very special to some whānau and they choose to take it home. You could talk with your whānau before the birth and make a decision about the whenua with them. You can also include your decision about the whenua in your birth plan. Find out more about caring for the whenua on the Auckland Women's Hospital website.

    Caring for your whenua — Auckland Women's Hospital

  • Contractions

    The contractions to birth the whenua are not as strong as those you had during the first and second stages of labour. 

Auckland Women's Hospital

Detailed information about the 3 stages of labour.

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