Am I in labour?

Here are some signs that your body is in the early stages of labour:

  • a ‘show’. As your cervix begins to open, you might notice a thick discharge comes out of your vagina. This can be clear, bloody or brown in colour and will feel thick and sticky. This was the mucus plug that sealed the entrance to your womb, helping to protect your baby from bacteria or infection.
  • your ‘waters break’ – this could be a slow leak or a big gush of liquid out of your vagina (it will smell different to wee). Contact your LMC when this happens, and:
    • check the colour of the water to see if it looks dirty, or greenish or brown in colour. This may be meconium, your baby’s first poo, which can be a sign that baby’s in distress.
  • you’re getting cramps low down in your tummy, a bit like period pain, or pain in your lower back. These are your contractions starting.

You know labour has begun when your contractions are:

  • regular (e.g. happening every five minutes)
  • strong
  • last for about 45-60 seconds, and
  • are five minutes apart.

When this starts happening, it’s probably time for you to go to the hospital or birthing centre, or have your midwife come to you if you’re having a homebirth.

How long does labour take?

It’s different for everybody – and every birth.

Vaginal births can take less than a day, or they can take a few days. The longest part is often the ‘warm-up’/early labour, when your contractions are first starting and your body’s getting ready for birth.

Active labour and transition (when your contractions are much more intense) generally lasts around four to eight hours, and the second phase of labour (when you’re pushing baby out) often takes one to two hours.

Find out more about the signs and stages of labour. 

But this is just a guide – some women have much quicker labours, and others have much longer.

Labour tends to be longer if:

  • you need an induction
  • it’s your first baby
  • there are complications, or
  • you’re having a large baby. 

A caesarean (c-section) operation generally takes less than an hour.

What are contractions?

During the first stage of labour, contractions prepare the birth canal for your baby to come out by causing the cervix to open (dilate), soften, shorten and thin.

In the second stage of labour, contractions help you to push your baby out – and in the third stage, they help to push out your placenta/whenua.

What do contractions feel like?

Contractions feel like your tummy tightening and going hard, and then relaxing.

In early labour, contractions feel a bit like period cramps and last about 20-40 seconds. You might also get pain in your lower back.

As labour goes on, your contractions will go for longer and get more intense/painful.

What are Braxton-Hicks contractions?

Braxton-Hicks contractions are a tightening in your abdomen that comes and goes. It can be hard to tell if these are real labour contractions or just ‘practice’ contractions, which is why Braxton-Hicks is sometimes called “false labour”.   

They typically start in your third trimester of pregnancy. This is your body’s way of preparing itself for giving birth, as these contractions tone the muscles in your uterus.

You will most likely get Braxton-Hicks in the afternoon or evening, especially if you’ve been very active during the day. They may be more frequent the closer you get to your due date. However, they are not usually regular.

Braxton-Hicks constrictions can cause discomfort but they are not usually painful, just uncomfortable at times. They might be more noticeable if your bladder is full – so you might want to try going to the toilet to see if this helps.

Signs of Braxton-Hicks contractions include:

  • contractions that come and go
  • contractions that don’t get stronger or closer together, unlike real labour contractions 
  • contractions that disappear when you change position or urinate (wee)

If you’re experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions

Make sure you are drinking enough water, as even minor dehydration can cause contractions.

Try changing your position during an uncomfortable contraction — if you're sitting, stand up (and vice versa).

Use these contractions as a chance to practice the breathing, visualisation or any other strategy you and your birth partner may want to try during labour.

Is labour painful?

Yes, but the intensity is different for everyone – and it is manageable (otherwise mums would never have more than one child!).

What can I do for pain relief during labour?

There are a lot of different options for how you can manage the pain and intensity of childbirth. Go with what feels right for you.

Non-medical pain management options for early labour, or if you’re wanting a natural low-intervention birth:

  • change positions – keep moving and stay upright, gravity helps (walk, use a Swiss/birthing ball, lean against a wall)
  • relaxation – mirimiri/massage or acupressure, breathing techniques, a positive and encouraging birthing partner, karakia/prayer, waiata/song, yoga, music, aromatherapy
  • heat and water – take a shower or bath, or use a heat pack
  • alternative medicines – rongoā, homeopathy or herbal medicine
  • TENS machine – this delivers gentle electrical pulses that block pain messages and stimulate the release of endorphins (happy hormones). This is most effective during early labour.

Medical pain relief options:

  • gas (Entonox) – sometimes called ‘laughing gas’, this option doesn’t completely take the pain away, but it can make it more manageable. It tends to make you feel a bit drunk.
  • pethidine, morphine or fentanyl injections – these are strong pain killers that are injected by your LMC. They can make pain more manageable but can also make you and your baby drowsy.
  • epidural – injected into your lower back by an anaesthetist, an epidural effectively numbs the lower part of your body.

There are pros and cons to each form of medical pain relief, so it’s best to have a chat through your options with your LMC to decide what would be best for you.

As much as possible, it’s important to do what you can to feel safe and relaxed during birth. Not only does it help your body labour, but it also helps you to have a more positive birthing experience. 

Can I have an elective c-section?

Caesarean (c-section) operations are normally only recommended by your LMC if they believe labour may be dangerous to you or your baby.

This is because a c-section is major surgery and carries greater risk and recovery time than a vaginal delivery.

However, if you’d prefer not to have a vaginal delivery, please discuss this with your LMC – they’re there to offer you confidential, non-judgemental support.

How long does my midwife look after me?

Your lead maternity carer (LMC) is contracted to look after you for the duration of your pregnancy, and for four to six weeks after birth.

At the four to six weeks mark, Plunket or your chosen Well Child provider will take over caring for you and your whānau.

Can I change midwife?

You can. It’s best to do this as early as possible though so you have more time to connect with your new lead maternity carer (LMC).

Where can I have my baby?

In New Zealand, we’re in the privileged position of having lots of options available to us for where to birth our babies.

  • Home birth: if you and your baby are well, then a home birth is absolutely an option. Every region in Aotearoa has a Home Birth Association (just Google “Wellington home birth association”, for example) that can provide you with advice and support and link you in with midwives who specialise in home births. 
  • Birthing centres (primary maternity centre): if you and your baby are well, and you’re wanting a natural birth without intervention (e.g. medical pain relief), then a birthing centre is a great option. These are often only available in main cities though, so check what options are available near you.
  • Hospital (secondary maternity centre): if there are complications in your pregnancy, then the hospital is the safest place for you and your baby to be. You may also choose to deliver at hospital if you’d like to access medical pain relief, or if you’d feel safer and more relaxed there.

Remember, there’s no one “right way” to have a baby. Choose the option that’s best for you and your whānau.

For more information about home births.

Home Birth Aotearoa

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Home Birth Aotearoa is the national collective of regional home birth groups throughout Aotearoa.

Find what maternity facilities (e.g. birthing units) are available in your area.

Ministry of Health

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The Government's principal advisor on health and disability: improving, promoting and protecting the health of New Zealanders.

What should I wear during labour?

It’s entirely up to you – but we’d recommend something that’s practical and comfortable, and nothing really tight or restrictive.

Some women find it comfy to wear a sports bra and lavalava/sarong or a big t-shirt and only take their underwear off when it’s time to push – and some women hate the feeling of wearing anything during labour. It’s totally up to you. 

You will want some good quality hair-ties though!

Who can be with me during labour and birth?

Along with your LMC, you can also bring a support person (or people) into the birthing centre or hospital with you. We recommend having a chat with your LMC beforehand to find out if there are any restrictions on numbers where you’re planning on birthing. 

Whoever you choose to be in the room with you (your partner, whānau, doula etc) – we recommend picking someone/people who care about you and are there to support you.  

Feeling relaxed and safe helps every part of your birthing experience, so please don’t have people in the room with you that you don’t actually want there.

Can I eat during labour?

If you’re having a normal natural birth, then it’s a great idea to drink lots of water and to have small regular snacks like toast, yoghurt and fruit during labour. Your body’s working really hard and it needs the energy.

Helping with drinks and snacks is a good job for your support person, but make sure they remember themselves as well. Ask them to pack enough food for both/all of you.

If you’re having complications or medical procedures, your LMC will guide you on the best thing for you to do.

What are my rights? What do I have a say in?

In New Zealand, you are protected by the Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights.

These say that by law you have rights to: 

  • professional care from skilled staff
  • be treated with respect, including respect for your culture, values, beliefs, customs, privacy and confidentiality
  • know how your information is stored and used, and who it will be shared with
  • view any information held about you and to correct it if necessary
  • know about the services that your midwife or specialist doctor provides
  • have everything you need to know carefully explained, and be able to ask any questions you need so that you can make informed decisions about all the care for you and your baby
  • refuse any care offered to you (and to change your mind at any time)
  • have someone with you for support
  • complain about the treatment you receive.
Your rights.

Ministry of Health

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The Government's principal advisor on health and disability: improving, promoting and protecting the health of New Zealanders.