What is labour?

Labour is a generic term used to describe a particular set of circumstances, which begin with regular contractions of the uterine muscles and ultimately lead to the delivery of a baby. The word ‘Labour’ is a very appropriate one, as anyone who has ever given birth will know that it involves a lot of hard, physical work!

How does labour begin?

Many women find it very difficult to know when they are in true labour, and may often rush off to the maternity hospital only to be sent home again for another week.

Early labour pains can feel like period pains, which come intermittently. They may feel like a band of pain tightening across the stomach and are sometimes accompanied by worsening backache. During this wave of pain (called a contraction) the abdomen will feel hard and tight if a hand is placed on it. The pain reaches a climax then dies away until the next wave of pain comes along.

Timing of contractions, especially on a first pregnancy, can be very difficult, as most women don’t know what they are supposed to be timing. If the contractions are preceded by a ‘show’ or by the rupture of the membranes surrounding a baby (i.e. ‘breaking of the waters,’ then true labour has definitely started.

What is 'a show'?

Towards the end of pregnancy, a woman may notice that a blood-tinged globule of mucus which looks like pinkish jelly or slime will emerge from the vagina. This is actually the plug of mucus which has been lodged in the cervix, or neck of the womb, throughout the nine months of pregnancy and it is commonly referred to as ‘a show.’ It is one of the most reliable signs that a woman has gone into labour, although many women never see ‘a show’ at all.

What is the 'breaking of the waters'?

This is another perplexing term of pregnancy, but all it refers to is the rupture of the membranes which surround the baby. This causes a gush of watery fluid out of the vagina, and is another reliable sign that labour has started. The rupture of the membranes can be embarrassing for a woman if it happens when she is in company, but in many cases, the membranes have to be ruptured artificially under medical supervision in order to induce labour.

What are the stages of labour?

Labour has three distinct stages, as follows:

Stage One:

Often referred to as the first stage of labour, this lasts from the onset of labour to the time when the cervix is fully dilated (opened) to allow the baby’s head to pass through. Full dilation is achieved at 10 centimetres.

Stage Two:

This lasts from full dilation of the cervix to the completion of delivery of the baby, and is usually the most exhausting period of labour as the mother has to engage in very hard physical work in pushing the baby out.

Stage Three:

This lasts from the completion of delivery of the baby to the time when the placenta (or afterbirth) is delivered. It is usually the shortest stage of labour.

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