What’s Childbirth Like? The Different Stages Of Labor

different stages of labor

At last, after such a long wait your due date is approaching. Along with the excitement and sense of anticipation, you must also be feeling a little apprehension. If you are preparing for delivery and looking for information on what the birthing process is going to be like, we have the goods for you.

Labor has three stages, and the first 2 to 3 hours after birth is sometimes considered to be the fourth stage of labor. Let’s take a look at some signs that indicate that labor is beginning and what happens during each stage of labor.


Signs That Labor Is Beginning

As your due date gets closer, you’ll find that your baby has moved lower and settled into your pelvis. Some women also get a burst of energy as labor approaches and feel an urge to clean or cook (an instinct called nesting). Here are some signs that indicate the start of labor:

  • Your contractions become stronger and come closer together.
  • You get lower back pain and cramps that don’t go away.
  • While you’re pregnant a plug of mucus blocks your cervix. A bit before labor starts, or in the early stage of labor, this plugs comes away and you have a pink or brownish jelly-like discharge. The pink or brownish color is due to the presence of blood. Don’t worry, though. It’s normal to lose a little blood during this process. However, if you start losing more blood it could be a sigh that you need medical attention. Labor starts immediately after this process for some women while it may take a few days for others.
  • Your water might break. This usually happens during labor but can also happen before labor begins. The water that drains out is the amniotic fluid that protects your baby. If labor doesn’t start after your water breaks, you need medical attention as your baby’s no longer protected and there is a higher risk of infection. You should also seek medical attention if you lose blood or if the water is smelly.1

The birth of your baby is a special experience and every delivery is unique. But here’s a general idea of what to expect during the process of childbirth:


1. The First Stage: Onset Of Labor

The first stage begins with the onset of labor and ends when the cervix is fully opened. Your cervix needs to open about 10 cm for your baby to pass through. This is what’s called being “fully dilated.” Your water could break at any time during this stage. This is the longest stage of labor, usually lasting about 12 to 19 hours.2

Stage 1 has three phases:

  • The first phase, known as early labor, encompasses the period from the beginning of labor till the cervix dilates to 3 cm.
  • The second phase, known as active labor, covers the period where the cervix dilates from 3 cm to 7 cm.
  • The third phase, known as transition, covers the period where the cervix dilates from 7 cm to 10 cm.

Let’s now take a look at what happens during each phase.

Early Labor Phase

Early labor generally lasts around 8 to 12 hours. During this phase, your cervix will thin and open up to 3 cms. Your contractions will usually be mild and irregular – a contraction might occur between 30 to 45 seconds, with a period ranging from 5 to 30 minutes between each contraction. Your contractions will become increasingly more frequent and stronger during the course of this phase.


What Should You Do?

  • Try and relax during this phase. It’s not yet time to go to the hospital.
  • If your labor starts at night, try to get some sleep. If it happens during the day do gentle, simple activities around the house.
  • Get something to eat and drink. You’ll need all the energy you can muster soon.
  • Your birth support partner can help you time your contractions and keep you calm.

Active Labor Phase

The active labor phase usually lasts around 3 to 5 hours. Your cervix will dilate to 7 cms during this time. Your contractions will be longer, closer, and more intense. They may last around 45 to 60 seconds with a 3- to 5-minute gap in between.


What Should You Do?

  • It time to go to the hospital now.
  • Practicing breathing techniques or relaxation exercises in between contractions can be helpful.
  • It’s a good idea to switch positions frequently during this phase.
  • Walking around or having a warm bath may also be helpful.
  • Keep drinking sufficient water and urinate often.
  • Your birth support person can track your contraction and offer encouragement. He or she can also help you feel more comfortable (by propping up pillows, distracting you with music etc.) and massage your lower back and abdomen.

Transition Phase

Though this is the shortest phase of the first stage of labor, it is also the most challenging. This phase could last between 30 minutes to 2 hours and your cervix will dilate to 10 cm at the end of this phase. Contractions can be long and intense and may even overlap. A typical contraction may last around 60 to 90 seconds and you may get a gap of 30 seconds to 2 minutes in between. You could experience chills, hot flashes, nausea, or gas during this period.


What Should You Do?

  • This is a difficult phase and you might need quite a bit of the support at this time.
  • Focus on your breathing and try to get through it one contraction at a time.
  • When you feel the urge to push, let your doctor know.
  • Your birth support partner can offer much-needed encouragement and remind you to relax between contractions during this phase.3

2. The Second Stage: Pushing And Delivery

The second stage is when you start pushing and deliver your baby. This generally lasts between 20 minutes to 2 hours. Contractions may last between 45 to 90 seconds with a 3- to 5-minute gap in between. Sometimes, your doctor may make a small cut (known as episiotomy) to make your vaginal opening larger in order to quicken delivery or avoid a tear.


What Should You Do?

  • Choose a position that you feel comfortable giving birth in. Women give birth in various positions like sitting, kneeling, squatting, or lying back. An upright position like squatting may have some benefits like reducing the duration of this stage. But concentrate on choosing a position that you find easy.
  • You will need to use all your energy to push forcefully during contractions and rest in between.
  • When your baby’s head is about to come out, your doctor may ask you not to push but to blow short breaths out your mouth. This is to give the skin and muscles of the area between your anus and vagina time to stretch. It also allows your baby’s head to be born gently and slowly.
  • After the baby’s head is out, the rest of the baby is generally born in the next couple of contractions. You can expect to hold your baby against you almost immediately.
  • Your birth support partner can help you relax, encourage you, and give you ice chips to help you through this phase.
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3. The Third Stage: Out Comes The Placenta

The third stage is the shortest and it involves the delivery of the placenta. This stage can take anywhere between 5 minutes to half an hour. Your doctor may massage your uterus and gently pull the umbilical cord, which will help deliver the placenta. You could experience some shivering after the placenta is delivered, but this is normal and not a cause for concern.7

4. The Fourth Stage: Post-Birth Phase

The first 2 to 3 hours after birth make up the fourth stage of labor. You might experience fatigue, chills, tremors, and some discomfort during this stage. You could also feel dizzy if you try to stand up. But the hard work of labor is over and you can now enjoy your baby.

What Should You Do?

  • Try to get some rest to recover from all the hard work that went into labor.
  • You can take a warm shower if you wish, but make sure that someone is nearby to help if you feel weak or dizzy.
  • Placing an ice pack covered with a towel between your legs can help reduce swelling.
  • Breastfeed your baby and give her plenty of skin to skin contact. Placing your baby against your skin is the best way of keeping her warm and calm.
  • Have some fluids and something to eat if you feel hungry.8