The First Stage of Labour

The first stage of labour includes the time from the start of labour (although defining that is a challenge in itself!) to full dilation of the cervix i.e. when you start pushing. It is usually the longest stage and builds in intensity from the latent phase, through the active phase, ending with the transition phase.

Until now the cervix has been tightly closed with a mucus plug. In the weeks and days before you start to feel that labour has started, the cervix starts to get thinner (this is called effacing) and you may lose your mucus plug - this is referred to as having a 'show'.

... it is difficult to accurately say when labour actually started...

The latent phase of labour may feel very similar to contractions or sensations you have experienced in the weeks and days before labour, which is why it is difficult to accurately say when labour actually started, and hence how long a woman's labour actually is. For example, I had mild period pain type cramps and backache for three days before I would say that labour actually started, whereas someone else may experience those cramps as contractions and describe themselves as having been in labour for three days.

So in summary, the first stage of labour includes:

Latent Phase

  • longest and easiest phase
  • varies from about 1 hour to 12 hours long
  • the cervix dilates from 0cm-3cm
  • contractions are about 30-60s long
  • contractions become closer together, from 10-20min apart to about 5min apart
Active Labour
  • is more intense than the latent phase
  • is usually around 1 hour to 6 hours long
  • the cervix dilates from 3cm to 8cm
  • contractions are about 40-60s long
  • contractions are about 2-4min apart
  • is the most intense phase of the first stage of labour, but it is usually the shortest
  • can last from 5min to 2 hours
  • the cervix reaches full dilation - usually 10cm
  • contractions are about 60s-90s long
  • contractions are about 2 ½-3min apart and may feel like one long contraction

A tip from our Birth Partner's Guide: You'll know she's in transition when she...

  • feels like she wants to push
  • has lost her sense of modesty, as in completely!
  • has lost her sense of humour, if that hasn't happened
  • feels panicky and expresses a desire to give up
  • shakes or trembles
  • is nauseous or vomiting
  • feels out of control
  • is extremely sensitive to touch
  • is restless and irritable
  • complains about aching or burning in her thighs

Go to the Second Stage of Labour or the Third Stage of Labour, or the main page on Stages of Labour

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