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Labor and Birth: Stages of Labor

Knowing what to expect during the stages of labor can help take some of the mystery out of the birth process. What will labor feel like? How long will labor last? How much will it hurt? These are common questions women have when preparing for labor.
The stages of labor are:

  • Early labor, active labor and transition
  • Pushing and birth
  • Delivering the affterbirth (placenta)

How long each woman spends in each stage of labor varies widely. Some women go from early labor to birth in just a few hours, while other women will be in the first stage of labor for a few days.

Let’s take a look at each stage of labor and what it entails.

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Stage One: Early Labor, Active Labor, Transition

In early labor your contractions are noticeable, but not painful. You might feel uterine cramps, tightening or a feeling of fullness that’s similar to what it feels like at the start of your menstrual period.

If your pregnancy is free of complications, you’ll most likely spend this stage of labor at home. Because the discomfort is minor, you can probably continue with normal household activities. Many women find that this part of early labor is a great time to get some sleep. It’s also a good idea to stay hydrated (drink water) and nibble on food.

Active labor begins when your contractions are about a minute long and coming five minutes apart. Now, you’ll make your journey to the hospital or birth center. At this stage of active labor, the contractions are more noticeable. The tightening turns into more of a cramping feeling. Don’t worry! Unless your baby is turned toward your spine, which is the cause of “back labor,” the contractions are about as severe as normal menstrual cramps. Some women might even find contractions less painful than their typical menstrual cramps.

During the first part of active labor your cervix will dilate from about four centimeters to about eight centimeters. Now that your contractions feel like cramps, how long, you wonder, will this active labor take? There’s a wide range of experiences. Some women dilate quickly, in a few hours or less. Other women take days to dilate. Moving around, walking, bathing, dancing, and changing labor positions can help your labor. Relaxing, deep breathing, quiet and darkness are also known to help shorten this stage of labor.

As your cervix dilates and your body prepares to get baby moving, your contractions will become stronger and closer together. You’ll use the coping strategies you learned in your Labor and Birth class. If you’re having an epidural, you’ll get it during this stage.

Transition is, for most women, the most difficult part of labor. During this time, your cervix is dilating from eight to ten centimeters. Contractions will be intense—lasting a minute or more and coming two or three minutes apart. Fortunately, for most women, transition doesn’t last more than a couple hours.

Stage Two: Pushing and Birth

BirthThe second stage of labor begins when your cervix is fully dilated. Now that your cervix is fully open, your body is ready for baby to come out. Now it’s time for baby to pass through your birth canal and into the world.

To push your baby out, your uterine contractions change. They will feel differently and last longer now, as they nudge baby slowly through the birth canal. They will also slow to every two to five minutes.

You’ll feel a strong urge to push with each contraction at this stage. Pushing is hard work, so try to rest between contractions. If you’re very tired, you may even fall asleep for a minute or two.

Some women are able to push a baby out in just a few contractions, but for others it can take hours. If you need an episiotomy, it will happen at this stage.

The second stage ends with the birth of your baby!

What, wait? There’s more? Aren’t we done?

Stage Three: Placenta

In the third stage of labor, you’re tired but overjoyed because your little one is in your arms. It would seem that labor would be over now, but there’s one more step to go.

After your baby is born, the placenta separates from the uterus and now it has to come out. Your uterus cramps more to pass the placenta. But who cares? Compared to the earlier stages of labor, this one is less painful. And besides, you have your baby now!

The third stage of labor ends when the placenta is delivered—usually only five to twenty minutes after baby arrives. During this time you can let your healthcare providers deal with the placenta, stitching up your episiotomy or tears (if applicable), and cleaning up while you enjoy your first few minutes with your new baby.

Congratulations, mama! You did it!

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