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The Three Stages of Labor

Katlyn Joy | 6, October 2009


The Three Stages of LaborFirst Stage of Labor

This is the longest of the stages of childbirth, lasting anywhere from several hours up to days, especially for first-timers. It begins with the cervix dilating, and ends when the cervix is fully dilated at 10 centimeters. Throughout the first stage of labor, contractions will go from being painless and infrequent to much closer and harder.

The first stage of labor is broken down into segments, the first one is early labor and is typically spent at home, where you will be most comfortable. Early labor is the part of labor where the cervix goes from 0-3 centimeters dilated. It can last between 8-12 hours, and contractions will be approximately 15 minutes apart and last around a minute to a minute and a half, until at the end of early labor when contractions will be closer to 5 minutes apart.

During early labor, you may go about normal life as much as possible. Go for a walk, to a movie, eat light meals, and continue to keep hydrated. You probably will not be too uncomfortable, and may not need your support person too much yet. You should make sure your bag is packed, and let people know things are underway, but don't grab the car keys for awhile yet!

The next phase in early labor is the Active Phase. This phase encompasses the time your cervix dilates from 4-7 centimeters, and your contractions will be about 3 minutes apart, and around 45 seconds in duration. There will most likely be increased bloody show, (blood tinged mucus from the cervix) and more pressure and back discomfort. You probably won't be so talkative, and will become focused on the birth more now. Your support person will be greatly needed now, to keep you comfortable, and coping with labor. This is when you'll probably be heading to the hospital. Once you arrive there, expect to put on a gown, give urine and blood specimens and possibly get an IV started. You will probably be on a fetal monitor for a bit as well.

Your support person can help you by reminding you, and helping you into, different positions. Walking the hallways with you can help labor progress, as well. You might take warm baths or showers or try sitting in a rocking chair or using a birthing ball. Your support person can bring you ice chips, drinks if allowed, cool washcloths for your forehead, and massage your back or rub your legs if it's helpful. Also, just reminding you to use the bathroom regularly can be helpful. Timing contractions, helping you with your breathing and relaxation will keep your birth partner busy now, too.

The last phase of the First Stage of Labor is transition. This is an intense part of labor, but thankfully the shortest, usually only 15 minutes to 2 hours in duration. During transition, your cervix will go from 8-10 centimeters dilated. The contractions will only be a couple minutes apart and may seem nonstop. Chills, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and forgetfulness are common. Your support person will be vital to keep your spirits up, and your motivation supplied. You will need frequent encouragement and reminders that this is the shortest part of labor. Ice chips, cool cloths, massages, short simple commands are what you need most from your helper now. Make sure they know your wishes as communicating with doctors and nurses now will be difficult for you. They need to keep you comfortable, as you may not be able to make simple requests while your body is so incredibly busy gearing up for the delivery. It's not unusual for your bag of waters to break by this time, and once that happens, the contractions intensify. Your partner can remind you just how close you are getting to holding that precious baby now!

Second Stage of Labor

This is the delivery stage of labor, and begins when you are fully dilated at 10 centimeters and ends with the birth of your baby. It typically lasts around two hours, although every labor is different, and first timers and those who have had epidurals can expect to be on the longer side.

The contractions during the second stage of labor often are about 2-5 minutes apart and last about 60-90 seconds. They most likely will feel less intense/painful than those earlier contractions, but will involve an urge to push and more pressure. You will be told when to push, and when to breathe through your contractions. Your partner will need to maintain eye contact and give you clear directions now.

Changing positions for pushing, especially those that utilize gravity to aid you, is advisable. Make sure you rest between pushes, as your energy will be tapped and possibly lagging now. As this stage progresses, you will feel a great deal of pressure at rectum and you might have a small movement, but don't worry. It's normal and will be cleaned up.

You'll have more and more bloody discharge as well. As the baby crowns, you'll feel a stinging sensation then numbness. Watch in the mirror to see your progress. Don't feel bad if baby seems to slip back. That's normal.

At some points in this stage, you'll be instructed to pant through the contractions, because the vaginal/perineum region is not quite ready and you don't want it to tear, you want it to stretch, so listen to your support people. Your partner will continue to keep you on track, help you maintain breathing and relaxation and keep you comfortable.

Third Stage of Labor

After your baby is born, the third stage of labor begins. It ends when the placenta separates from the uterus and is pushed through the vagina. It only takes about 15 minutes or less, and you'll be so distracted by the baby you will hardly notice the process.

During this period, any repairs to your vaginal area will be done under local anesthesia. It's normal for you to become chilled and to tremble. You will be watched to make sure the uterus is contracting as it should, and that bleeding is not profuse. Should there be any concern, you'll be given a medication to help increase the contracting process and stop the bleeding. Nursing also helps naturally with the process, and your baby is probably put to your breast at this point as well. You'll be so busy enjoying your new little one, and exhausted, that this final stage of labor will be a blip on the screen for you!

Katlyn Joy is a freelance writer, and just graduated with a Master's of Arts in Creative Writing. She is mom to seven children, and lives in Denver, Colorado.

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Showing 1 - 8 out of 8 Comments
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Lisa Aug 5, 2011 01:07:54 PM ET

I took pain killers with my first baby- I was tired and didn't end up moving for 14 hours- I was cramped up, out of it, and in sooooo much pain~ For my second child I waited until the last minute to take one shot of pain killers, and I moved the entire time I was in labor- very little pain, and the labor was way quicker. I found that pain killers did nothing but make you exhausted, sick and it slowed the labor down- and because you are so tired from the pain killers, you focus more on the pain as it zaps you. You should move as much as possible, and wait to take the pain killers for as long as possible- have the nurse let you know when it is your last chance to have medication...... worked for me, and I will do the same with this third labor as well. Good luck to all of you ladies!!!!

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Lauren Aug 18, 2010 03:40:21 AM ET

I'm due in 7 weeks. I,m only 16 years and I need some tips for whats going to happen, during labor;delivery, can anyone tell me something?

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ke undra Apr 2, 2010 04:04:44 PM ET

I want to know how many centimeters do u have to dilate before a epildrual.

Ashley Jan 12, 2015 10:50:16 PM ET

If you're at 8cm they wont do it i thin. i can't really remember.

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shak Mar 29, 2010 11:43:48 PM ET

Ladies please keep in mind that if you face this process with fear and expect pain and suffering then that is what you will get but if you can focus on the beauty of what is about to happen during your birthing process you might be surprised to see that it is not as bad as you think. The mind is very powerful and able to create and change your experience.

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julie Dec 27, 2009 10:12:33 PM ET

Am so scared about labour and the horror stories ive heard about it!

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keira Dec 6, 2009 01:53:30 AM ET

U should defently get the epidural it works so good n doesnt hurt that much

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brenda rivas Oct 22, 2009 10:40:41 PM ET


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