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Labour of love: Understanding labour pain

Claire Barnardo
We explain the three stages of labour, so you’ll understand what’s happening.

In this article we will look at:


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Movies have taught us to fear labour pain above all else. But if you know what to expect during labour, you can learn how to work with your body’s pain signals.

Labour is divided into three stages which each progress differently. Let’s start with the first stage.

The first stage

What happens?

This stage begins from the onset of labour until you are fully dilated at 10cm. The body is preparing to give birth by dilating the cervix to 10cm. It does this through contractions, making the cervix thinner and pushing the baby’s head into the pelvis. To dilate to 5cm usually takes the longest. From 5 to 8cm is shorter but more difficult, and 8 to 10cm is quicker but more intense. Studies show that the average first labour is between 12 to 18 hours long.

How to find comfort?

Rest during very early labour, then move about as it starts to progress. As labour becomes active, you can work with the pain of contractions through slow, steady breathing and alternating your position. Research has shown that mind relaxation techniques can also be very helpful during this stage.
The second stage

What happens?

At the end of the first stage, there is a short transition where the rim of the cervix moves away. The second stage then begins: from full dilation of the cervix till the baby has moved through the birth canal. The body thins and flattens the perineum to assist the baby’s head to emerge. The first sight of the baby’s head is called crowning, after which the baby emerges from the birth canal.

How to find comfort?

Research suggests that using visualisation of your baby moving through the canal can be helpful. Breathe deeply during contractions and focus on pushing through your perineum. Kneeling or squatting has been shown to help in this stage.
The third stage

What happens?

The umbilical cord is clamped and the placenta is delivered. The uterus contracts to expel the placenta. Once the placenta has been delivered, the perineum and vagina are examined for any tears.

How to find comfort?

Keep breathing rhythmically as you experience any last contractions. 
Keep in mind the natural progression of labour through each stage, and you’ll know what to expect. Although it might sound overwhelming, remember that millions of women have given birth through the ages – you can too. Do you feel prepared for labour?
BabyGroup says…
This article has been checked by Melinda Rollinson, Doula. A member of the BabyGroup Medical Council.
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