Stages of labor

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. It’s when you start to feel contractions that cause your cervix to dilate (open) and thin out (efface). This lets your baby move into the birth canal. The first stage is divided into two parts: early labor and active labor.

Early labor

If you’re a first-time mom, you may be in early labor for a few hours or days. For most first-time moms, early labor lasts 6 to 12 hours. You can spend this time at home or wherever you’re most comfortable. During early labor:

  • Your cervix starts to dilate (open up).
  • You may feel strong and regular contractions that come every 5 to 20 minutes and last 30 to 60 seconds.
  • You may have a bloody show. This is bleeding from the vagina at the beginning of labor.

What you can do in 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. 

Active labor

This is when you head to the hospital! Active labor usually lasts about 4 to 8 hours. 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 has dilated to 6 centimeters and will dilate up to 10 centimeters.
  • If your water hasn’t broken, it may break now.

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.

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. And 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 you can do: 

  • Enjoy the first few moments with your baby.
  • Start breastfeeding. Most women can start breastfeeding within 1 hour of their baby’s birth.
  • Give yourself a big pat on the back for all your hard work. You've made it through childbirth! 

Last reviewed: October, 2018