First stage of labour

The first stage of labour happens when the neck of the womb (the cervix) stretches to let the baby out.

Contractions start and the cervix slowly opens until it is 10 cm wide (fully dilated), ready for the baby to pass through. For first-time mothers this stage can last 6–36 hours.


You’ll 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. To start with, contractions last only a short time (20–40 seconds) and they come and go. The contractions get longer and stronger and happen more often as labour goes on (lasting up to a minute every 3–5 minutes). To help you to feel more comfortable you could try a hot water bottle, a massage, leaning forward over large cushions or different positions. A warm bath or shower may also help.

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 pass it out of your vagina. The show may have some blood in it – this is normal. Some women do not have a show and sometimes the show happens a week before labour starts.

Your ‘waters break’

Your baby grows and develops inside a bag of fluid called the amniotic sac. When it’s time for baby to be born, the sac breaks at some time during your labour and the fluid drains out of your vagina. This is your waters breaking. If the sac doesn’t break early, it happens when the cervix is fully open or just as you start to push your baby out.

The fluid may come out slowly or as a gush of fluid. If the fluid is dirty-looking, greenish or brown, or if your waters break before labour starts, contact your midwife (or specialist doctor) straight away.

When to go to the birthing centre or hospital

If it’s your first pregnancy you may feel unsure about when you should go to the birthing centre or hospital. It’s a good idea to discuss this with your midwife or (specialist doctor) as part of your birth planning. If you are not sure, the best thing to do is call your midwife (or specialist doctor) or the birthing centre or hospital for advice.

If your waters have broken you’ll probably be told to go in to be checked.

If it’s your first baby and you are having contractions but your waters have not broken, you may be told to wait. You’ll probably be told to go in when your contractions are:

  • regular
  • strong
  • about 5 minutes apart
  • lasting about 45–60 seconds.

If you live far away from the birthing centre or hospital you may need to go in before you get to this stage.

Second babies often arrive more quickly than the first, so you may need to contact your midwife (or specialist doctor), the birthing centre or the hospital sooner.

Call your midwife (or specialist doctor) to discuss when to go.

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

Related website

Stages of labour – National Women’s Hospital (Auckland District Health Board)
About the three stages of labour.

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