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There are several signs that labour might be starting, including:

  • contractions or tightenings
  • a “show”, when the plug of mucus from your cervix (entrance to your womb, or uterus) comes away
  • backache
  • an urge to go to the toilet, which is caused by your baby’s head pressing on your bowel
  • your waters breaking (rupture of membranes)

The early (latent) stage of labour can take some time.

Call your midwife or the maternity advice line on 0300 422 5541 if:

  • your waters break
  • you’re bleeding
  • your baby is moving less than usual
  • you’re less than 37 weeks pregnant and think you might be in labour

Labour happens in three clear stages:

  • First stage: when contractions gradually open up the cervix, which is the neck of your womb (uterus).The first stage of labour can include a period of early labour, often referred to as the latent phase of labour. This is followed by active labour, and the transitional phase.
  • Second stage: when you push your baby out into the world.
  • Third stage: when you deliver the placenta.

Read more about the stages of labour.

Monitoring your baby in labour

Your midwife will monitor you and your baby throughout labour to make sure you’re both coping well.

This will include using a small handheld device to listen to your baby’s heart every 15 minutes. You’ll be free to move around as much as you want.

Your midwife may suggest electronic monitoring if there are any concerns about you or your baby, or you choose to have an epidural.

Electronic monitoring involves strapping two plastic pads to your bump, and possibly a clip attached to the baby’s head (a foetal scalp monitor). These are attached to a monitor that shows your baby’s heartbeat and your contractions.

You can ask to be monitored electronically even if there are no concerns. Having electronic monitoring can sometimes restrict how much you can move around.

If you have electronic monitoring with pads on your bump because there are concerns about your baby’s heartbeat, you can take the monitor off if your baby’s heartbeat turns out to be fine.

A foetal scalp monitor will usually only be removed just as your baby is born, not before.

You can discuss your options for pain relief with your community midwife. You may wish to write them in your birth plan, but remember you need to keep an open mind. You may find you want more pain relief than you’d planned, or the midwife caring for you in labour may suggest more effective pain relief to help you.

Read more about the different options for managing your pain in labour.

Sometimes labour can be slower than expected or during the birth you or your baby may need some extra help. If there are concerns for the wellbeing of you or your baby during labour or birth you will be offered medical intervention. Your consent will be required before any treatment is given, therefore any treatment will be explained so that you can make an informed choice.

A caesarean may be recommended as a planned (elective) procedure or done in an emergency if it’s thought a vaginal birth is too risky.

Some women choose to have a caesarean for non-medical reasons. If you ask your midwife or doctor for a caesarean when there aren’t medical reasons, they will explain the overall benefits and risks of a caesarean compared with a vaginal birth.

Read more about caesarean section birth.

It’s important to understand your birth options if you are expecting more than one baby. Twins and triplets are more likely to be born early and need special care after birth than single babies.

It’s a good idea to discuss your birth options with your midwife or consultant early on in your pregnancy. You’ll normally be advised to give birth in a hospital as there’s a higher chance of complications with twins.

Read more about giving birth to twins.

Many women who have had a caesarean section go on to safely have a vaginal birth in a future pregnancy. Your obstetrician will meet with you during your pregnancy to discuss your individual circumstances and advise you on whether VBAC is suitable for you.

For more information about your options following a previous caesarean section.

Find out more about vaginal birth after caesarean in this film, featuring a mum talking about her experience of going through it, and local midwife Jo.

It’s a good idea to also know what to expect straight after your baby is born.

Your baby can be lifted onto you as soon as they’re born and before the cord is cut so you can be close to each other straight away. Your baby is then dried and covered with a towel to stop them getting cold. You can continue to hold and cuddle your baby. Your baby may have some of your blood on their skin and perhaps vernix, the greasy white substance that protects your baby’s skin in the womb.

If you prefer, you can ask the midwife to dry your baby and wrap them in a blanket before your cuddle.

Recovering from giving birth vaginally can take anything from a few days up to a few months. Find advice on post-birth care here. 

Recovering from a caesarean may take longer. You may be in hospital for a few days after a caesarean section, and may need to take things easy for several weeks. Read about recovering from a caesarean section.

For more information about your recovery in the days and weeks after you give birth, head to the You and Your Baby page.