While each birthing experience is unique, you’re better off prepared for the stages of labor.
In this article:
The Three Stages of Labor | Get Ready as Early as Now
1. First Stage of Labor
The first stage of labor begins when regular contractions start. Contractions feel different for every woman, but they often start off as mild and irregular.
Contractions are supposed to help usher in the changes the cervix will need to go through to withstand the birthing process. It leads to the dilation and effacement of the cervix.
Cervix dilation refers to the widening of the cervix’s opening. While effacement refers to the softening, thinning, and shortening of the cervix.
Once the cervix is dilated to 10 cm and is fully effaced, the baby should be able to pass through the birth canal.
The first stage of labor is often the most unpredictable stage. It can last for a few hours up to a few days. This is usually the longest stage of labor, but it’s often quicker for moms who have given birth before.
The first stage of labor can be divided into three phases:
- Early Labor
- Active Labor
Here are some signs of early labor:
- Mild, but irregular contractions – usually does not last for more than one minute
- Progressive dilation and effacement of cervix
- Bloody show – increased clear or pinkish mucus-like vaginal discharge that may or may not have a tinge of blood
The bloody show occurs when contractions lead the body to expel the mucus plug. When you get pregnant, a mucus plug is formed to cover the opening of the cervix to keep bacteria out of your uterus.
What is a mucus plug? Also known as the bloody show, the mucus plug is positioned in the cervix to prevent any unwanted bacteria and pathogens to enter the cervical canal and make its way to the uterus.
Many women don’t notice early labor beginning. That’s why it’s so hard to tell when it actually begins.
If it’s your first baby, chances are, it’ll be a while before you move into active labor. Most women remain comfortable during this phase of labor.
Expectant moms should do what they feel is right for them at this phase. Here are a few things they can do to remain comfortable:
- Go for a walk
- Keep hydrated
- Urinate frequently
- Take a warm bath or shower
- Breathing techniques
- Take a nap
Whatever you decide to do, try to rest or sleep when you can. Rest will be in short supply once your baby is here.
As labor progresses, contractions will become longer, stronger, and will come closer together. Early labor comes to an end and active labor begins once the cervix is 4-6 cm dilated.
Make sure to contact your doctor if:
- Your mucus plug is accompanied by more than an ounce (or two tablespoons) of bright red blood
- Your water breaks, even if you haven’t felt any contractions
- You have not reached the 37th week of your pregnancy and are experiencing signs of labor
If you have not reached the 37th week of your pregnancy and you are experiencing labor signs, it could mean that you are in pre-term labor. Your doctor will need to examine you as soon as possible.
When the expectant mom gets to this stage of labor, it’s usually time to head to the hospital or birthing center. Here are some signs of active labor:
- Longer, stronger, and more frequent contractions
- Cervix dilates more quickly
- Leg cramps
- Increased back pressure
Most women can tell the difference between early and active labor because of the intensity of their contractions. In active labor, the contractions are so intense and painful that most women can’t talk while it’s happening.
If you’re considering an epidural to help manage the pain throughout labor, it’s best given during the active labor phase. Although, keep in mind than an epidural may prolong the labor and birthing process.
There are other ways to manage pain during active labor. Here are a few examples:
- Walk around
- Lean on something or someone during contractions
- Lay on your left side
- Have your partner massage your back
- If your water hasn’t broken, take a warm bath or shower
- Breathing and relaxation techniques
- Roll on a birthing ball
- Place a cool towel on your forehead
- Place a cool or warm compress on your back
Active labor can last between 4-8 hours for first-time moms and tends to be quicker for moms who have already given birth. Before moving into the transition phase, the cervix should be 8 cm dilated.
The transition stage of labor is the last part of active labor. During this phase, the cervix dilates from 8 cm to 10 cm.
Here are some signs of the transition phase:
- Strong contractions that occur every 2-3 minutes and lasts for 60-90 seconds
- Nausea and vomiting (sometimes)
- Increase of bloody discharge
- Increased rectal pressure
Women who have epidurals may not experience these signs and symptoms at the same intensity.
At the end of this phase, the baby has usually descended into the pelvic region. This is what leads women to feel like they should start pushing.
If you feel the urge to push, inform your doctor or nurse. They may ask you to hold off on the pushing until you’re fully dilated.
You need to wait until you’re fully dilated before you start pushing because it may lead to a swollen cervix which could further delay the birthing process.
The transition phase can last for a few minutes to an hour or so. Again, it tends to be quicker for moms who have already had vaginal births.
RELATED: 8 Early Signs of Labor
2. Second Stage of Labor
The second stage of labor begins once a woman is fully dilated at 10 cm and fully effaced. This is where all the pushing happens!
At this point, the baby has already descended into the pelvis and the contractions are further apart again. Each contraction will exert pressure on the baby to move further along the birth canal.
In most hospitals, nurses and doctors will coach the mother to push during each contraction to speed up the birthing process. At this stage, it might be helpful to try different pushing positions such as:
- on your hands and knees
The descend may happen quickly or it might take some time. Again, the process tends to be slower for first-time moms.
While the wait may not seem like fun, there are some advantages to taking it slow. Pacing the pushing gives your vagina time to stretch, which makes it less susceptible to tearing.
The urge to push becomes stronger as the baby’s head begins to become visible and starts to crown. At this point, moms can request to get a first glimpse of their baby by asking someone to hold a mirror down there.
Crowning is finally achieved when the widest part of the baby’s head is visible. As soon as the baby’s head is delivered, the next contraction is used to push out the baby’s shoulder one at a time and quickly followed by the baby’s body.
The first thing your doctor or nurses will do is check out the baby’s airways (the nose and mouth) for any excess mucus that may need to be suctioned out.
But very quickly, if there are no complications, the baby should be in the arms of its mother for some skin-to-skin contact. At some point, the doctor clamps and cuts the umbilical cord.
3. Third Stage of Labor
It might seem strange that labor is still on-going even if the baby is already out. There’s one thing left to do: the new mom has to deliver the placenta.
Soon after the baby’s delivery, contractions will begin again. The contractions will be milder and less painful than those experienced earlier.
If you plan on breastfeeding, the third stage of labor is the perfect time to begin. Breastfeeding releases the hormone oxytocin and oxytocin encourages contractions.
When the doctor or nurse sees signs that placenta has separated from the uterus, the new mom is asked to push one more time to deliver the placenta. Much like the contractions, the pushing is also less intense and isn’t usually painful.
This last stage of labor lasts for approximately 5-30 minutes.
What Happens After Birth?
After the baby is born and the placenta is delivered, the uterus will continue to contract until it returns to its normal size. Nurses and doctors will keep checking a few hours after giving birth to make sure that this is taking place.
The contractions seal off the open blood vessels that were formerly attached to the placenta. Otherwise, the new mom may continually bleed out from the blood vessels.
The birthing process may have also led to tears in the perineum. The perineum is the area between the anus and vagina.
If there is a tear or if the doctor chose to do an episiotomy, the doctor will repair it shortly after the third stage of labor. This usually involves a shot of local anaesthesia and sutures.
Check out these three distinct stages of labor from Health Tips:
It’s usually hard to tell what else is going on once you have your new baby in your arms. While it might seem like there’s still a frenzy going on around you, don’t forget to savor these first few moments with your little one.
Are you excited to meet your little one? What have you been doing to prepare for your precious one’s arrival? Let us know in the comments section.