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Giving birth: Learn the stages of labor

There's one question that virtually every pregnant woman wonders: What will my labor be like? But you won't know until it's happening. That's because every labor is different.

But labor has three stages that follow a pattern. And knowing what to expect from each one may help you feel ready—and more relaxed—about what's coming your way. Here's a preview of what you may experience during a vaginal delivery.

Stage 1

During stage 1, you begin having contractions that help dilate (open) and efface (thin) your cervix. Your contractions will help guide your baby down into your lower pelvis. It's labor's longest stage. And unless it's cut short by a cesarean section, it has two parts—early labor and active labor.

Early labor. If you're a first-time mom, this phase usually lasts from 6 to 12 hours. You'll probably be able to spend most of early labor at home, waiting for your contractions to get closer together.

What to expect:

  • Your cervix starts dilating.
  • Your contractions may come every 5 to 15 minutes and last about 60 to 90 seconds. In very early labor, you might not feel them. But even when they're more intense, they're usually manageable. 
  • You may have your bloody show, a vaginal discharge tinged with blood.

What you can do:

  • Rest and relax as much as possible—nap, take a soothing shower or take a walk if you're in the mood. 
  • Do your breathing and relaxation exercises.
  • Make sure you have everything you need for the hospital.

Active labor. Now labor really gets going. You'll want to get to the hospital when active labor starts.

What to expect:

  • Your cervix has dilated to 6 centimeters. It will continue to dilate up to 10 centimeters.
  • Your contractions get stronger, longer and more painful. Active labor ends with a transition into stage 2—this transition is typically the hardest part. Contractions may seem to come on top of each other. Typically, they last 60 to 90 seconds.
  • You may have back pain, leg cramps and nausea.
  • You may feel the urge to push.
  • If your water hasn't already broken, it may now.

What you can do:

  • Focus on your breathing—relax between contractions, and try not to worry about the next one.
  • Change positions or move around.
  • Pee often—emptying your bladder gives your baby's head more room in the birth canal.
  • If you want medicine for pain relief, you can start it now.
  • Tell your provider if you have the urge to push. They may say you're not ready yet.

Stage 2

You're near the finish line and can finally push. Pushing takes anywhere from 20 minutes to two or three hours. It takes more work from you than active labor. But what a reward—this stage ends with your baby's birth.

What to expect: 

  • Your contractions may not come as quickly. They'll last 60 to 90 seconds. 
  • You may get an episiotomy, a small cut to enlarge your vagina's opening.
  • Your baby's head starts to crown (show).
  • Your provider guides your baby out of the birth canal. Sometimes forceps or suction is necessary to help your baby arrive.
  • Your baby is born, and the umbilical cord is cut.

What you can do:

  • Bear down with each contraction—or when you're told to push.
  • Rest between contractions. 
  • Find the most comfortable position—squat, sit, kneel or lie back.

Stage 3

Your baby has been delivered, but you're still technically in labor. This is the shortest stage—no more than 20 minutes. During stage 3, you deliver your placenta.

What to expect:

  • Contractions are less painful now and will help push your placenta out. They keep up even after it's delivered.
  • If you had an episiotomy, your provider will stitch you up.
  • You may have chills and feel shaky. If so, tell your provider.

What you can do:

  • Welcome your baby and delight in your first moments together.
  • Let your body rest.
  • Give yourself tremendous credit for all your hard work!

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Sources: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; March of Dimes; Office on Women's Health

Reviewed 2/1/2023

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