Your Guide to the Phases & Stages of Labour & Birth

When I was doing my labour doula training, some of the aspects of what I was learning just confused me for no good reason. Sometimes when terms sound similar to each other it makes it hard to distinguish what they mean. What’s the difference between stages and phases anyhow??

I found writing them down made it a lot easier to remember, and also to understand. Just like I did for learning the difference between stripping & rupturing the membranes, I decided to make a handy little post about it to help any of you who might find yourselves perplexed as well!


Childbirth consists of 3 stages:

Stage 1 - This stage is what we all know as labour. The dilation stage. Stage 1 consists of 3 phases.

Stage 2 - This stage is the birthing stage, during which your baby is born! The average birthing stage lasts from 15 minutes to 3 hours or so.

Stage 3 - This stage is the placental stage, during which your placenta is delivered. Stage 3 usually takes up to 30 minutes.

Easy-peasy right? Let’s move on!


Labour (stage 1) is split up into 3 phases:

Phase 1 - This is early, or latent, labour. It is when the cervix dilates to 3 or 4 centimetres. As opposed to pre-labour when contractions help to change & soften the cervix, though they’re not consistent. Early labour contractions however are able to be timed and you can see that they are progressing. Early labour can last anywhere from a few hours to 20 or so, and it accounts for about two thirds to three quarters of the dilation stage.
It’s during this phase that you would time contractions to determine when to go to the hospital by using the 4-1-1 rule.

Phase 2 - The second phase is called active labour. This phase begins when the cervix has dilated to about 5 cm and lasts until it’s at about 8 or 9 cm. Contractions become very strong and intense during this phase, lasting longer than a minute and happening every 3 or 4 minutes. Phase 2 lasts for approximately 3 to 7 hours (though it can be much shorter, especially if mom has given birth before).

Phase 3 - The last phase is called transition. This is when the cervix dilates the rest of the way to 10 cm. It is literally the transition between stage 1 (dilation) and stage 2 (birthing). The baby’s head moves from the womb, through the cervix, and down the birth canal. Contractions are at their highest, lasting up to 2 minutes, happening very close together. Phase 3 is by far the quickest phase, lasting anywhere from 5 to 30 contractions (about 15 min to a of couple hours).

Make sense now? Sometimes it helps to have everything laid out plainly in front of you; it certainly helps for me!

What else would you like to learn about? Let me know in the comments!