The first stage of labour has two phases, early labour and active labour. Early labour is also known as the ‘latent phase’. During early labour, your cervix (neck of the womb) shortens and flattens, and as it thins out it will begin to open. Your cervix is inside your body, at the back of your vagina. 

Active labour, also called established labour, describes the phase where your cervix is opening, is 4cm wide or more, and your contractions are long, strong and regular. During active labour, your midwife will want to care for you and your baby with regular checks and monitoring. If you choose an epidural for pain relief in labour, the procedure is carried out once you are in active labour. 

The neck of the womb will open further during this stage until it is fully open (the space needed for the baby’s head is around 10cm across). This opening is called dilation or dilatation, and when the cervix is wide enough for the baby to leave the womb, it is ‘fully dilated’.

This video from East Kent Hospital University Foundation Trust explains how you can get ready for birth and what to expect in the first stages of labour.