How long does labour last?

How long does labour last? What is the average time for labour & childbirth?

In medical terms labour is divided into three stages:

  • 1st stage – where your uterus and body are getting ready. Your cervix is softening and will begin to open until it is fully open (dilated). It is sometimes referred to as the “up stage” because the sensations are pulling/moving upwards. .
  • 2nd second – the second stage begins when you’ll feel the urge to push. It is sometimes referred to as the “pushing stage” or “down stage” because the sensations are pushing downwards. At the end of this stage, your baby will be here.
  • 3rd stage – the birth of the placenta. After your baby is born, you’ll have to give birth to the placenta. This is what is happening in the 3rd and final stage of labour.

So, how long does labour last? According to the NHS, the average first labour lasts between 8-12 hours and subsequent births will be significantly quicker (approx. 5 hours). However, your midwives will only record the timing from when you are considered to be in established labour, which is when your cervix is already around 4cm dilated (open). That means that the contractions and sensations that you are experiencing until then are not officially ‘counted or measured’. However, birthing folk themselves will usually add that time on when they describe their experience. It will take hours or sometimes days (first birth) from your baby dropping (lightening) to the beginning of established labour (4cm). Use this time to rest when you can, hydrate and keep your positive energy up!

Although the NHS and other healthcare providers divide labour and birth into three stages, it is not always that simple… Each medical stage can itself be divided into further smaller steps and stages. When speaking to women and people who have given birth and/or attended births, they describe the birthing process in many more steps. Milli Hill, for example, divides the birth into 15 steps in her Positive Birth Book (affiliate link).

Here is a graphic to show a timeline of childbirth:

How long does labour last?
Childbirth/labour timeline

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