Stages of labor

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Key Points

Every woman’s labor is different. And it may be different each time you have a baby.

Learning about stages of labor before your due date can help you know what to expect so you can feel ready for your baby’s birth.

Use a birth plan so your health care provider and hospital staff know what your plans are for labor and after birth.

Having a professional support person, like a doula, during labor can help you have a better experience with labor and birth.

Try to stay comfortable and relaxed through labor. Move around and try different positions to find what works best for you.

What are stages of labor?

Labor (also called childbirth) is the process of your baby leaving the uterus (womb). Labor is divided into three stages:

  1. Labor
  2. Pushing and birth
  3. Delivery of the placenta

Every woman’s labor is different. And your labor may be different each time you have a baby. But there are patterns to labor that are true for most women. Learning about the stages of labor and what happens during each one can help you know what to expect once labor begins.

What is a birth plan?

A birth plan is a set of instructions you make about your baby’s birth. It includes things like:

  • Where you want to have your baby
  • Who you want to be with you during labor and birth
  • If you want medicine to help with labor pain
  • If there are cultural traditions you’d like to follow during labor and birth
  • If you plan to breastfeed

Before your due date, use the March of Dimes birth plan to help you think about how you want your labor to be. Share the completed plan with your partner, your health care provider and the staff at the hospital where you plan to give birth.

What is a doula?

You may want to have a professional support person help you through labor and childbirth. A doula is a professional labor assistant. This is someone who is trained to give physical and emotional care and support to women and their families before, during and after childbirth. For example, a doula can:

  • Help you stay comfortable
  • Explain what’s happening during labor and birth and any procedures you may have
  • Encourage you and give you confidence
  • Support your family and friends who are with you during labor
  • Let hospital staff know what you need
  • Help you get started breastfeeding

Having a support person like a doula can be good for you, your baby and your family. It can help you feel good about your birth experience. Having a doula can help:

  • Shorten your labor
  • Reduce your need for pain medicine during labor
  • Reduce your risk of needing a cesarean birth or the need for your provider to use forceps or suction with a vaginal birth
  • Your baby get a good Apgar score at birth. Your baby gets an Apgar test right after birth to check his overall health. The test checks his heart rate, breathing, muscle tone, reflexes and skin color.

To find a certified doula, ask your provider or go to DONA International.

You also may want to have your partner, a friend or a family member be a support person to help you through labor. They can go to childbirth education classes with you to learn ways to help, like timing your contractions, helping you relax and helping you move around to find a comfortable position. Ask your provider about childbirth education classes in your area.

If you decide to have a doula or another support person help you with labor and birth, put their names and contact information in your birth plan. Share your plan with your provider and with hospital staff.

What happens in the first stage of labor?

The first stage of labor is the longest stage. For first-time moms, it can last from 12 to 19 hours. It may be shorter (about 14 hours) for moms who’ve already had children. It’s when contractions become strong and regular enough to cause your cervix to dilate (open) and thin out (efface). This lets your baby move lower into your pelvis and into your birth canal (vagina). This stage of labor ends when you are 10 centimeters dilated. The first stage is divided into three parts: early labor, active labor and transition to stage 2 of labor.

Early labor

For most first-time moms, early labor lasts about 6 to 12 hours. You can spend this time at home or wherever you’re most comfortable. During early labor:

  • You may feel mild contractions that come every 5 to 15 minutes and last 60 to 90 seconds. 
  • You may have a bloody show. This is a pink, red or bloody vaginal discharge. If you have heavy bleeding or bleeding like your period, call your provider right away.

What you can do in early labor:

This is a great time for you to rely on your doula or labor support person. Try the methods you learned about in childbirth education classes about how to relax and cope with pain. During early labor:

  • Rest and relax as much as you can.
  • Take a shower or bath.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Change positions often.
  • Make sure you’re ready to go to the hospital.
  • Take slow, relaxing breaths during contractions.

Active labor

This is when you head to the hospital! Active labor usually lasts about 4 to 8 hours. It starts when your contractions are regular and your cervix has dilated to 6 centimeters. In active labor:

  • Your contractions get stronger, longer and more painful. Each lasts about 45 seconds and they can be as close as 3 minutes apart.
  • You may feel pressure in your lower back, and your legs may cramp.
  • You may feel the urge to push.
  • Your cervix will dilate up to 10 centimeters.
  • If your water hasn’t broken, it may break now.
  • You may feel sick to your stomach.

What you can do in active labor:

  • Make sure the hospital staff has a copy of your birth plan. 
  • Try to stay relaxed and not think too hard about the next contraction.
  • Move around or change positions. Walk the hallways in the hospital.
  • Drink water or other liquids. But don’t eat solid foods.
  • If you’re going to take medicine to help relieve labor pain, you can start taking it now. Your choice about pain relief is part of your birth plan.
  • Go to the bathroom often to empty your bladder. An empty bladder gives more room for your baby’s head to move down.
  • If you feel like you want to push, tell your provider. You don’t want to start pushing until your provider checks your cervix to see how dilated it is.

Transition to the second stage of labor

This can be the toughest and most painful part of labor. It can last 15 minutes to an hour. During the transition:

  • Contractions come closer together and can last 60 to 90 seconds. You may feel like you want to bear down.
  • You may feel a lot of pressure in your lower back and rectum. If you feel like you want to push, tell your provider. 

What happens in the second stage of labor?

In the second stage of labor, your cervix is fully dilated and ready for childbirth. This stage is the most work for you because your provider wants you to start pushing your baby out. This stage can be as short as 20 minutes or as long as a few hours. It may be longer for first-time moms or if you’ve had an epidural. An epidural is pain medicine you get through a tube in your lower back that helps numb your lower body during labor. It's the most common kind of pain relief used during labor. The second stage ends when your baby is born.

During the second stage of labor:

  • Your contractions may slow down to come every 2 to 5 minutes apart. They last about 60 to 90 seconds.
  • You may get an episiotomy. This is a small cut made at the opening of the vagina to help let the baby out. Most women don't need an episiotomy.
  • Your baby’s head begins to show. This is called crowning.
  • Your provider guides your baby out of the birth canal. She may use special tools, like forceps or suction, to help your baby out.
  • Your baby is born, and the umbilical cord is cut. Instructions about who’s cutting the umbilical cord are in your birth plan.

What you can do:

  • Find a position that is comfortable for you. You can squat, sit, kneel or lie back.
  • Push during contractions and rest between them. Push when you feel the urge or when your provider tells you.
  • If you’re uncomfortable or pushing has stopped, try a new position.

What happens in the third stage of labor?

In the third stage of labor, the placenta is delivered. The placenta grows in your uterus and supplies your baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord. This stage is the shortest and usually doesn’t take more than 20 minutes.

During the third stage of labor:

  • You have contractions that are closer together and not as painful as earlier. These contractions help the placenta separate from the uterus and move into the birth canal. They begin 5 to 30 minutes after birth.
  • You continue to have contractions even after the placenta is delivered. You may get medicine to help with contractions and to prevent heavy bleeding.
  • Your provider squeezes and presses on your belly to make sure the uterus feels right.
  • If you had an episiotomy, your provider repairs it now.
  • If you’re storing your umbilical cord blood, your provider collects it now. Umbilical cord blood is blood left in the umbilical cord and placenta after your baby is born and the cord is cut. Some moms and families want to store or donate umbilical cord blood so it can be used later to treat certain diseases, like cancer. Your instructions about umbilical cord blood can be part of your birth plan.
  • You may have chills or feel shaky. Tell your provider if these are making you uncomfortable.

What happens after your baby is born?

Congratulations! It’s time to hold your baby! Right after birth your provider places your baby skin-to-skin on your chest and covers him with a blanket. Holding your baby skin-to-skin helps your baby stay warm as he gets used to being outside the womb. It’s also a great way to get started breastfeeding. You can start breastfeeding even within an hour of your baby’s birth. Even if you don’t plan to breastfeed, hold your baby skin-to-skin so you get to know each other right away. Your baby will welcome your gentle touch, and this closeness can help you and your baby bond.

After birth, your body starts to change to help you heal. Your provider takes your temperature and checks your heart and blood pressure to make sure you’re doing well. If you had anesthesia during labor, your provider makes sure you’re recovering without any complications.

Last reviewed: March, 2019