The stages of labour: What REALLY happens when you give birth? One midwife reveals all!

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  • Isn’t it funny how when you’re pregnant, other mums often ‘gloss over’ the stages of labour and intimate details of birth until after you’ve had your baby?

    It’s almost as though, once you’ve had your little one, you join an exclusive club that makes it okay to talk about the more ‘undignified’ (and often, rather gory) realities. But sometimes it can be better to be prepared for what could really happen during labour and birth!

    From the signs of labour, the stages of labour and all the way through to the birth, one person who’s all too familiar with the realities of having a baby is midwife Anne Richley. Here, she exposes some of the secrets behind labour, birth and recovery!

    Waters breaking

    For most women, their waters won’t break until they’re in established labour. The bag of fluid often ruptures at the height of a contraction, imagine a balloon full of water being squeezed.

    For some mums-to-be, their waters will break before the contractions start and many dread this happening towards the end of their pregnancy. But it’s certainly no reason to become a recluse.

    The baby’s head usually acts like a plug when it moves down into the pelvis, so when the waters break it’s not as dramatic as it sounds. It can start as a trickle, and you may have to smell it to distinguish it from a leaky bladder – the amniotic fluid has a slight ‘almond’ aroma. It’ll look the same as straw-coloured urine. Just put on a sanitary towel and keep an eye on it. If it’s your waters, the trickle will continue. Altogether there’s around enough fluid to fill a wine bottle, but it’s unusual for it to burst with a ‘gush’ before labour starts.

    It doesn’t hurt when your waters go. You might feel a ‘pop’, then warm fluid trickling out of your vagina. You could always wear a sanitary towel towards the end of your pregnancy, just in case they break while you’re out and about.

    If you suspect your waters have broken or are still unsure, contact your midwife, who’ll want to check that you and your baby are well. Once you’ve been given the okay, and assuming all is well, labour will probably start within 36 hours.


    Labour talk usually centres on how many centimetres wide the cervix is. It sounds as though the midwives need a tool kit, complete with tape measure, but don’t worry, this certainly isn’t the case!

    Your cervix is part of the womb and sits at the top of your vagina. Before labour starts it feels like a little tube with a dimple in it (try putting your finger in your nostril, it feels similar to that!).

    Once labour starts, contractions help to open the cervix up, and it becomes flatter. Imagine stretching a thin piece of bubble gum, and popping a hole in the middle of it. This is how an ‘effaced’ (stretched thin) cervix would feel. The hole in it becomes bigger as labour progresses.

    If your midwife does a vaginal examination during labour, she feels the cervix with two fingers and, depending on how wide she can open her fingers, estimates how many centimetres dilated you are.

    When your cervix is fully dilated, (10cm), the contractions change and the baby’s ready to move down the vagina. Many midwives don’t do a vaginal examination at this point, as there are other signs to indicate that the cervix has dilated fully. These include the contractions changing, often stopping temporarily, and the woman’s anus starting to bulge with the contractions. This is also when a mum-to-be will feel nauseous and may be sick.

    Although your cervix is dilating throughout labour, it doesn’t mean your vagina is too. The muscles stretch once your baby moves down the vagina in the second stage of labour.

    Labour pains

    At the risk of being shot down in flames, for the vast majority of us labour does hurt. Don’t seek a cure; look at coping: there’s a big difference. Relaxation can help get you through it. I don’t expect you to drift off to sleep throughout labour (unless you’ve got a hefty epidural on board), but feeling well supported and in control of things can make a huge difference to the way you deal with the situation.

    Contractions gradually build, reach a peak and then, thankfully, start to come down the other side. You’ll then get a break before the next one. In early labour this could be 20 minutes, but at the peak of labour it may only be a minute or two. However small a break, you’ll be grateful for it!

    Opening your bowels

    Women often confess to worrying about this more than anything else. Lots of mums-to-be open their bowels during labour, but not in large amounts because, for many women, one of the first signs of labour is getting the runs – nature’s way of clearing the bowel beforehand.

    When it comes to the second stage of labour, the contractions become ‘expulsive’, which means you’ll get the feeling of needing to bear down or push. There’ll still be a trickle of amniotic fluid and usually there’ll be blood-stained mucus, so your midwife will be discreetly changing any pads underneath you to help keep you comfortable.

    When your baby’s head is almost visible, often the point when the bowels open, she’ll hold a pad against your back passage and no-one else will even be aware that your bowels have opened.

    As your baby’s head presses on the rectum you’ll feel as though you need to open your bowels, even if you don’t actually do so. There’s nothing you can do about this, and if you try to ‘hold back’ you’ll only make yourself feel more uncomfortable. You might even feel that you’re baby’s travelling through your back passage.

    Giving birth in water doesn’t make you immune to doing a poo. Part of a water-birth ‘kit’ is a plastic sieve for the midwife to keep the water as clean as possible! One dad said that I looked like a garden gnome with a fishing rod, crouching at the edge of the pool with my sieve! Your midwife is completely used to this, and will dispose of the contents without batting an eyelid.

    The reality is that when it comes to giving birth, worrying about opening your bowels will be the last thing on your mind.

    Stages of labour

    Getty images

    After the birth

    You may get the ‘shakes’ and feel cold immediately after the birth. This is all normal and is part of your body adjusting to the change in temperature, loss of fluid and the sheer impact of giving birth. Don’t expect your tummy to be flat straight away, you’ll still have a bit of a jelly belly for the following few weeks. You might also feel a bit swollen or bruised down below, and shortly after the birth the midwife will take a look to see if you need any stitches.

    With a little tear there’s usually no need for stitches. But if they are necessary, your midwife will inject some local anaesthetic into the tear and wait for it to make the area numb before she starts.

    The stitches are dissolvable, which means there’s nothing to be removed afterwards. If you need stitches after a home birth, your midwife might suggest that she does the job while you sit on a towel on the sofa. If you’re in hospital, you might be asked to put your legs in stirrups while lying on a bed.

    Remember, this is still your birth experience and you should feel comfortable during this procedure. If the tear isn’t bleeding, ask for it to be left alone and get the midwife to re-check it after an hour or so.

    Painful breasts
    When your milk comes in, around the third or fourth day, you’ll know about it! Your breasts become fuller, firm and can feel very ‘engorged’. The slightest knock can make you wince. But don’t worry, it’ll all settle down within a couple of weeks.

    If you develop a tender area in a breast and feel ‘fluey’, you may have mastitis. Try to keep breastfeeding, but contact your midwife or GP as you may need treatment.

    Swollen legs
    Many mums develop swollen feet and legs after giving birth, even if they didn’t during pregnancy. It’s due to circulation readjusting. For most, it clears in a few days, but some have it for weeks. Whatever kind of birth you had, it’s important to exercise your feet soon after. Try a pedalling action, then stretching and relaxing your feet.

    Although swelling is normal, pain isn’t, so tell your midwife or GP of any pain or inflammation. It might indicate DVT (deep vein thrombosis) which requires immediate attention.

    Toilet trouble
    Don’t worry if you don’t open your bowels for a few days after the birth, as this is normal. Try to avoid constipation, though, otherwise it’ll be more uncomfortable when you do go. Eat lots of fibre, veg and fruit, especially prunes and figs, and drink lots of water. Haemorrhoids (piles) are quite common, but are easily treated with a cream. Sometimes they’ll disappear on their own, but see your GP if you’re worried.

    If you’ve had a tear, it may sting when you wee. Keep a jug of water by the loo and pour it between your legs when you go. If the pain continues, there’s blood in your urine or you feel unwell, contact your midwife or GP, as you may have an infection.

    Urinary incontinence is also common after birth, so be sure to do your pelvic-floor exercises. Mention it to your GP if it’s still an issue at six weeks.

    Love at first sight?
    Let your midwife know if you want your baby placed straight on you after the birth. Skin-to-skin contact is great for encouraging bonding and breast-feeding and it also helps to keep your baby warm. Some newborns are covered in vernix, a white, sticky substance that helped waterproof the skin and keep then warm in the womb. Others look a bit ‘squashed’, grumpy and blue, but they’re all beautiful!

    If you want to breast-feed immediately, then do so. Then again, you might feel exhausted and happy for your partner to hold them while you have well-earned rest.

    Some women fall in love instantly with their new baby, but there are plenty who don’t. Mums often feel exhausted and just want to sleep, and will gradually grow to love their baby. Not many will admit to this, but it’s very normal.

    Once this has settled, lots of women like to have a bath or shower. Assuming your legs aren’t numb from an epidural, this is fine. Your partner or midwife will walk with you to the bathroom, just in case you feel a bit wobbly. Your blood loss will be like a heavy period after the birth, so don’t be alarmed at the colour of the bath water, it always looks like there’s more when it’s diluted.

    For the first few days this will continue, so have a supply of super-absorbent sanitary towels ready. If you pass any large clots (bigger than an egg), let your midwife know or save the sanitary towel for her to look at. Occasionally a bit of placenta is left behind, which will hopefully work its way out. Gradually the blood loss will go darker and then change to a mucousy yellow colour that’s sometimes stained with blood. This can carry on for up to six weeks, and it’s best to avoid using tampons during this time.

    Going to the loo
    Even if you don’t tear giving birth, you might have a graze in your vagina, which can sting when you pass urine. So keep a jug by the side of the loo and as you do a wee, pour water between your legs to ease the stinging. Or do a wee in the bath just before you get out. This should start to feel better after a few days.

    Most women are frightened about opening their bowels after they’ve had a baby. It’s normal to worry that stitches will tear if you strain, but remember that although it’s the same area, we’re talking about two separate openings.

    If you’re worried, hold a sanitary towel against the stitches the first time you go to the loo, to make the area feel more supported’. Also, avoid constipation by drinking plenty of water and eating fresh fruit and vegetables.


    Recovery from birth varies between women. Some mums get straight back into their regular jeans and life continues pretty much as it did before. But this isn’t the case for the vast majority. Having a baby is a huge life-changing event and it’s unrealistic to expect your life to carry on exactly as ‘normal’.

    Some women feel a need to ‘debrief’ following the birth of their baby and this is completely acceptable. Talk to your community midwife or write to the head of midwifery at your maternity unit and ask for an opportunity to go through the notes, if you feel it could be beneficial.
    For the first few days and weeks

    • Nap in the day when your baby sleeps, so the nights don’t seem as bad
    • Poor bladder control is common after giving birth. It might be a while before you can get on a trampoline! Start doing those pelvic floor exercises before the birth, and continue to do so afterwards, it should improve.
      If you had a tear but no stitches, take it easy for a few days and allow the area to heal
    • If you’ve had stitches, soak in the bath with four drops of pure lavender oil every day to help soothe them
    • Have plenty of super-absorbent sanitary towels and breast pads to hand. Initially, you’ll feel like you’re leaking from every orifice. But give it time, it will all begin to settle down!
    • There’s no restriction on how long you should wait before having sex, if you feel ready, then that’s fine. However, the reality is that many women are too exhausted to even contemplate doing anything other than sleep when they go to bed!
    • If you’re finding it difficult to cope, talk to your midwife. She’ll visit you at home, and you should also have a contact number if you need to speak to her.

    For more information make sure you speak to your midwife or doctor

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