Labor Stages From First Contractions Through Delivery

Updated May 29, 2019
Woman in labor with partner coaching

Many mothers-to-be are anxious to learn what they can expect when they go into labor. Labor typically follows a natural progression of stages from those first contractions through the birth of your child and the delivery of the placenta. By familiarizing yourself with these stages, you will be better prepared when it comes time to give birth.

Three Stages of Labor

There are three stages of labor. The first stage of labor is broken up into three phases: early, active and transition. Pushing and birth are stage two, and the delivery of the placenta is stage three.

Stage One: Early Labor

Early labor is the longest phase of labor and can take hours, days or even weeks, according to Mayo Clinic. During early labor, your body is learning how to contract. In general, these contractions are more than five minutes apart and last anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds. Contractions in pre-labor are usually mild, might be uncomfortable and are similar to menstrual cramps. You might notice backache, nausea and mild diarrhea. Your cervix is one to four centimeters dilated.

Man timing his partner's contractions

Follow these tips for getting through early labor:

  • Be patient. Pre-labor can take a while. Try not to watch the clock or worry about timing contractions. When you need to time the contractions, you'll know.
  • You could easily have ten, twenty or thirty minutes between contractions. Enjoy the breaks. If it's the middle of the night, try to sleep between the contractions.
  • Distract yourself. Go for a walk, read a book you've been dying to read or work on thank you notes or birth announcements. Journal or paint your belly cast. Go to a movie or go shopping. Make a lasagna or a cake with your best friend.
  • You may not feel much like eating, but you should try. Try to eat high-protein, high-carbohydrate foods that will give you long-lasting energy.
  • Drink lots of fluids. If you don't feel like eating, try to get calories through your fluids. Drink water, smoothies, chicken broth and power drinks.
  • If contractions are getting stronger and closer together, get your things together and call your labor support.

Stage One: Active Labor

According to BabyCenter, in active labor, you are no longer wondering whether you're in labor; you know you are. The contractions are now three to five minutes apart and last 45 to 75 seconds. These contractions are much stronger, and you may be feeling some pressure in your pelvis and against your cervix. You might be seeing some bloody show (mucus tinged with blood) and you should have to concentrate through the contractions. In active labor, your cervix is five to seven centimeters dilated.

Man massaging partner's back during active labor

These tips can help you get through active labor:

  • Remember that active labor is much shorter than early labor.
  • Continue to distract yourself until you need to concentrate.
  • You should go to your birthing facility unless you're planning a home birth.
  • Practice your breathing patterns.
  • Change positions frequently.
  • Try a warm shower/bath.
  • Your support personnel should be actively supporting you with comfort techniques such as massage, praise, and encouragement and protecting the birthing environment.

Stage One: Transition

Giving Birth Naturally describes transition as the most intense stage of labor. It is also the shortest phase of labor. You're now seven to ten centimeters dilated. These contractions are very intense and should be lasting 60 to 90 seconds. They will be nearly on top of each other with less than a minute in between. You may feel an intense urge to push if you don't have an epidural in place.

While you may experience nausea and vomiting at any time during your labor and delivery, it is most common in the transition phase of labor. The nausea and vomiting may begin at the earlier phases of labor and worsen as you progress through the transition phase. This is due to the intensity of the pain from the contractions and the slowing of your digestive system during labor. Epidurals can be a factor as well. It can cause a drop in blood pressure which in turn can cause nausea and vomiting. If you are having contractions and nausea and vomiting occurs, be reassured that this is normal.

Use these tips to get through transition:

  • Remember that this phase is very short and contractions will not get any harder. And after you get through transition, it's time to push.
  • Women in transition are extremely irritable, so don't be inhibited. If your support people aren't helpful, tell them how to be helpful.
  • Listen to your body to find the best position.
  • Use breathing patterns.
  • Relax as much as possible between contractions.
  • Remember to take it one contraction at a time.
  • Try to focus on your baby, not on the discomfort of the contractions.

Stage Two: Pushing

The second stage of labor is pushing. You start pushing when your cervix is completely (10 centimeters) dilated. These contractions are usually further apart than transition contractions. According to the American Pregnancy Association, you will feel an intense urge to bear down if you don't have an epidural. If you do have an epidural, you should feel rectal pressure. Stage two ends with the delivery of your baby.

woman in labor pushing with partner coaching

Use these pushing tips:

  • Remember that pushing can take up to three hours or longer depending on your care provider.
  • Only push during the peak of the contractions and relax as much as possible in between.
  • If you don't have an epidural, experiment to find the most comfortable position for pushing.
  • Try to relax your jaw.
  • Push downward and not into your face or legs.
  • If you feel a burning sensation, push into it, not away.

Stage Three: Delivery of the Placenta describes the third stage of labor as the delivery of the placenta. Many women don't even notice this stage-they're so caught up in their baby. You might notice mild contractions, especially if you're breastfeeding. Your care provider will tell you when to push out the placenta. If you're curious, ask to see the placenta.

Be Prepared, Not Afraid

Labor and delivery are intense experiences. While some nervousness about going through labor is understandable, there is nothing to fear. By learning the stages of labor, you will know what to expect as you begin the amazing process of giving birth to your child.

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Labor Stages From First Contractions Through Delivery