The Stages of Labor
As the big day approaches, you may be feeling more and more nervous about what giving birth will actually entail. You are probably worried about the pain, about your stay at the hospital and about how long the whole thing will take. By reading up on the stages of labor and delivery, as well as the experiences of other women, you will be able to ease your anxiety about the birthing process. By knowing as much as possible, you will be able to recognize the stages of birth for yourself, and be able to make conscious and well-informed decisions about what's right for you.
First Stage: The Waiting Game
The first stage of labor includes three parts: early, active and transitional labor. The early phase is also called the latent period or pre-labor. During this stage of labor, contractions will begin. They may begin gently but will gradually become stronger and more intense. The contractions will help your cervix to change, becoming shorter and opening up more, so that the baby can begin its descent into the birth canal. This process is called effacement and dilation.
Depending on your baby and your body, your progression may be different than average. It can take some women as much as a few hours to dilate even a few centimeters. Once your contractions begin, you should call your doctor or midwife to let them know that your labor has started. Depending on how far apart your contractions are, you may have some time before you head to the hospital.
Once your cervix has dilated to 3 or 4 centimeters you are considered to be in the active phase of the first stage of labor. During this phase of labor, your cervix will change consistency. It will go from being firm and tight to being soft and stretchy. Your contractions should also be getting longer - they may last up to 60 seconds now and occur every 3 to 4 minutes. To ease the pain, step into your birthing pool or head to the hospital. At this time you may also choose to have natural childbirth or to use some pain medication, such as an epidural.
Your water may also have broken by this point. The breaking of the water occurs as a result of your body increasing production of a particular enzyme as you go into labor. This enzyme works to dissolve the collagen that keeps the fetal membrane together. The amniotic sac then splits and fluid is released. To induce labor naturally, the doctor or midwife may suggest breaking your water, if it hasn't yet broken. The color of the amniotic fluid will be checked. This fluid should be clear. If it is tinted, called meconium staining, this may indicate that the baby is stressed.
During the transitional phase of early labor, your cervix dilates from 8 to 10 centimeters. Depending upon your body, you may feel intense flu-like symptoms. Some women experience nausea, chills, and shakiness. Try to keep your mind off the contractions, which are now occurring every 2 or 3 minutes. Listen to music or read until it is time to push.
Second Stage: Hard Work!
The second stage of labor is significantly shorter than the first, averaging about 90 minutes. It may go even faster if you've already had a child. But you will have to put in a lot of hard work. Although women are typically encouraged to give birth in a partially reclined position, trying a different position can actually be more beneficial in helping speed up labor and delivery. Try getting gravity to help you out by squatting, standing, or resting on all fours. Giving birth in an upright position can reduce your time in the second stage by as much as 60 minutes. Now is also a good time to utilize your Lamaze breathing techniques.
During this second stage of labor, your cervix will be completely dilated and you can begin to push. Your baby will start to make her way down the birth canal. You will feel the pressure of your baby's head against your legs and you will have an urge to push. As you push, the baby moves further down your pelvis. Crowning will occur. This is when the baby's head stretches the opening of the vagina. You may feel a stinging sensation. If necessary, an episiotomy will be done to help the baby's head fit through the vaginal opening. A small cut is made in the vagina to facilitate this. The baby is then born and the umbilical cord is clamped.
Third Stage: Almost Done!
The final stage of labor occurs after the delivery of your baby and is also known as the afterbirth. During this stage, the placenta and other uterine substances are expelled from the body. After the baby is birthed, your contractions will start again, only they will be less intense. The contractions will help the placenta to release from the uterus and drop into the womb. It can then pass out of the vagina. This stage generally only takes 5 to 15 minutes, but it can last up to an hour. Most women aren't even aware of this stage as they are busy being introduced with baby!
Need to talk about your worries or concerns? Chat with other new moms!
For more information on labor, delivery and your pregnancy check out our pregnancy videos.