Accumulating evidence suggests that human parturition represents an inflammatory process. Leukocytes are known to infiltrate uterine tissues but the exact timing, nature and quantity of these cells has not been formally characterized. We have previously demonstrated an apparent increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines within tissues of the labouring uterus. The aims of this study were to quantify and compare the leukocyte subpopulations before and during labour in fetal membranes, decidua and cervix and to quantify and compare mRNA expression of interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta), IL-6, IL-8 and tumour necrosis factor-alpha in myometrium, cervix, chorio-decidua and amnion. Biopsies of each of these tissues were obtained from pregnant women delivered by Caesarean section before and after the onset of spontaneous labour at term. Subpopulations of leukocytes were identified using immunohistochemistry and cytokine mRNA expression was quantified using Northern analysis. We found that parturition was associated with a significant increase in IL-1beta, IL-6 and IL-8 mRNA expression in cervix and myometrium, IL-6 and IL-8 mRNA expression in chorio-decidua and IL-1beta and IL-8 mRNA expression in amnion. Histological analysis demonstrated that leukocytes (predominantly neutrophils and macrophages) infiltrate the uterine cervix coincident with the onset of labour. These data lend further support to the hypothesis that labour is an inflammatory process.