Stages of Labor

Every woman will experience labor in a unique way. Labor will also vary from pregnancy to pregnancy in the same woman. In some cases women will be through labor in just a few hours while others will be in labor for a long period of time that takes a great deal of stamina to manage. You will not know how your labor is going to progress until it begins. However, understanding the stages of labor can help you to prepare for your experience. There are three stages of labor. Read on to learn what happens in each stage.


Stage 1 of Labor—Early Labor and Active Labor

Stage 1 is early or active labor which starts when the cervix dilates and thins so the baby can start to move through the birth canal. This stage lasts longer than the other two stages.

1. Early Labor

What happens and how long it lasts: Early labor is generally considered to be the first half of stage 1 where the cervix starts to dilate. You will feel mild contractions which last 30-90 seconds and come regularly at this stage. Near the end of this stage you can expect your contractions to be around 5 minutes apart. Early labor can be very unpredictable in the amount of time it lasts. The average length of this stage is 6-12 hours, but later deliveries will often have a shorter stage.

How you can deal with it: Until your contractions start to increase in their intensity or frequency early labor is up to you. This is not usually an uncomfortable stage so you may feel like continuing with your regular activities until it passes. If you are uncomfortable you can listen to music, take a bath or shower, have a massage, drink fluids, change positions, use relaxation breathing techniques, apply heat or ice to your lower back or eat a light, healthy snack.

2. Active Labor

What happens and how long it lasts: From early labor the body moves into active labor where the work of childbirth begins. During this stage your cervix will dilate to 10 cm and your contractions will become more regular, closer together and stronger. You may feel your water break if it has not already. You may also feel more pressure on your back. If you have not moved to your birthing facility yet, now is the time to do. Active labor can last for up to 8 hours, though some women remain in this stage longer. Those that have had a vaginal delivery before may find this stage to be quite short.

How you can deal with it: During this stage your health care team should be providing support. Try to remember the relaxation technique you learned and use them to manage your discomfort as best you can. You can also change positions, take a warm bath or shower, roll on a birthing ball, take a walk, get a massage between contractions or hold your breath during contractions to help manage the discomfort. While this stage can be uncomfortable, your doctor may ask you to hold back because pushing could cause your cervix to well which could cause a delay in delivery.

At this point it is normal for the pain to increase during your labor. Do not feel as though it is wrong to use anesthesia or pain medication. You and your healthcare provider can determine what is the best choice for your health and your baby, but ultimately you are the one who needs to determine if you need assistance managing pain.

Stage 2 of Labor—Birth of the Baby

Of all the stages of labor, stage 2 of labor is the most painful! Now the fight really begins.

What happens and how long it lasts: Stage 2 is the point where you will give birth to your baby. This can last for just a few minutes or a few hours as you push your baby out and into the world. First time moms or those using an epidural will often spend longer in this stage.

How you can deal with it: Now is the time to start pushing. Your medical team will likely encourage you to push through your contractions, but you can take it more slowly and let nature tell you when is the right time to bear down. Try not to hold tension in your face but concentrate on pushing where it counts. Get into whatever position feels best such as sitting, kneeling, squatting or on your hands and knees. You might be asked to push more gently if your vaginal tissues are tearing. Try to see what you are doing in a mirror or concentrate on what you are feeling to determine what level of force is needed. After the baby’s head has moved through your health care provider will free the umbilical cord and it’s not long before the rest of your baby’s body is out.

Stage 3 of Labor—Delivery of Placenta

What happens and how long it lasts: After your baby has been born it is time to deliver the placenta. You may be holding your baby at this point and looking for a moment to bond. This is very important, but it is also important to work with your team to make sure the placenta is delivered properly and your bleeding is controlled. It usually only takes a few minutes to deliver the placenta, but it can take up to 30 minutes for this to occur.

How you can deal with it: At this point you should try to relax, perhaps by nursing your baby. You will continue to have milder contractions and you might feel shaky or chilled. You may get an abdominal massage to help expel the placenta. You may also be asked to give one more push to get the placenta to clear. Your healthcare provider will then inspect the placenta to make sure no pieces are missing. Pieces that are missing will need to be removed to reduce your risk of infection.

At this time your health care provider will also determine if you need stitches to repair your body after birth. If this is needed local anesthesia can be provided if you are not still numb. You might also be given medication to limit your bleeding.

Watch a video to learn more details about stages of labor and what you should do: