What to expect during your labour and baby’s birth

What to expect during your labour and baby’s birth

It can be hard to predict exactly what will happen when a baby is born. Every mother, her pregnancy and her baby are unique. Even women who’ve had a baby before will have a different experience each time.

Whether you are having a vaginal or caesarean birth, it will help if you understand what to expect.

Be guided by your maternity care provider about what to expect when your baby is born and find out what you can do to prepare. Write up a birth plan and get their help to understand more about your preferences and how to achieve your labour and birth goals.

I know when I’ll meet you!

You’ll know your due date and will have that in mind for when your baby is likely to come. However, only a small percentage, around 5% of babies, are born on their due date. Two weeks either side of an expected date of confinement (EDD) is considered normal and ‘term’.

Caesarean section

A caesarean section is a surgical procedure where a cut is made in the mother’s tummy and the baby is delivered.

Caesarean sections can be booked for a particular day and time - these are known as elective or planned. An unplanned caesarean or emergency caesarean is when there is risk to a mother or her baby of a vaginal birth.

If you are having a planned caesarean, you’ll have time to talk with your maternity care provider about what this involves. You’ll also be able to discuss the type of anaesthetic you’d prefer – an epidural is the most popular form as it means the mother is awake when her baby is born.  When a baby needs to be born very quickly, a general anaesthetic can be the safest option. 

Early labour

Some women just have a ‘sense’ that they will soon go into labour. Though they may not have any physical signs, they just suspect their labour will soon start.  

Early labour can be mild and include a number of different signs

  • A show is common – this is a mucousy, blood-stained vaginal discharge which is a sign that the cervix is starting to thin and dilate.
  • Some women have diarrhoea or need to poo more frequently as their baby’s head creates pelvic pressure.
  • Waters breaking – also called membrane breaking or rupturing. This can happen with a gush or a slow trickle. At first, you may think you have wet yourself when your waters break.
  • A feeling of pressure in your pelvis as the baby’s head drops lower.
  • Contractions often start slowly and build in frequency and intensity as labour progresses.
  • Contractions feel like period pain and are different to Braxton Hicks contractions which are painless.
  • Sometimes early labour can stop and start. There may be a break of a few hours or even a few days between them.

Call your maternity care provider or the hospital to let them know if you feel you’re in early labour. They’ll guide you about when to come in. Once you arrive at the hospital or birth centre, you’ll be checked by a midwife to assess your stage of labour.

Be prepared to go back home if your labour is in the early stages and your baby is unlikely to be born soon.


The definition of true labour is regular, progressive contractions which are building in intensity and frequency.

  • Contractions which are lasting for one minute or longer.
  • The waters can break during active labour.
  • Contractions which are coming at regular intervals and which can be timed.
  • Contractions which are getting stronger, longer and more frequent.

Labour has three clear and distinct stages.

First stage

Is when the contractions are building in intensity, frequency and length.

  • The first stage is generally the longest stage, especially for women having their first baby.
  • Many women feel more relaxed if they stay at home during the first stage.
  • Contractions become more painful and there is no doubt that labour has started.
  • The cervix starts softening and becoming thinner. It also starts to dilate.
  • Generally, the first stage of labour lasts for around 12 hours, sometimes less and sometimes more.

Second stage or delivery

This is the stage from when the cervix is fully dilated to 10 cms and the baby is born.  This second stage of labour is the hardest and often takes around two hours or more.

During the second stage, the baby moves out of the uterus, through the cervix and vagina and is born. This is also the pushing stage, when the contractions cause an urge to push.  Pushing, combined with contractions helps the baby to be born.   

An assisted delivery – with forceps or vacuum extractor can done when there are problems pushing the baby out, or when a mother is too exhausted to push. They are also an option if the baby’s heartrate is dropping or the baby is not in the right position and needs to be turned.  It’s not always predictable until the pushing stage that an assisted delivery is necessary. 

Third stage

Is the time from when the baby is born to when the placenta is delivered. You will be offered an injection to help your uterus contract and for the placenta to separate from the wall of the uterus.   

After your baby is born

Your baby will be placed on your chest as soon as they are born and you’ll be encouraged to give them skin to skin contact. However, if there are problems with their breathing, they will need to be checked first by a paediatrician.  They will also be given an Apgar score – this is a number which checks five important newborn physical characteristics at one and five minutes after birth. Each of these is rated from 0-2 and the number tallied up to ten.   

If you’re planning to breastfeed, you will be supported in labour ward to offer your baby a feed as soon as possible after they’re born. It can help during pregnancy to understand as much as possible about the benefits of early breastfeeding and correct attachment.

As soon as you and your baby have been checked and you’re both stable and well, you’ll be transferred to the postnatal ward. Depending on the hospital or birth centre’s policy, you’ll be discharged home a few hours after, or the same day after your baby is born.

If you’re unsure about what to expect

  • Speak with your maternity care provider. Make a list of questions and don’t feel embarrassed to clarify anything you’re unsure about.
  • Ask your partner to come with you to your antenatal checks.
  • Read everything you can about pregnancy, labour and birth.
  • Speak with your family and friends who’ve had children and ask them what their experience was like. Remember, every woman and her baby are unique.

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