Stages of Labor and Delivery

If you are pregnant, especially if this is your first baby, you probably want to know exactly what’s going to be happening to you during the most intense phase of your pregnancy: labor. Although every woman is different, and it is impossible to know how long or how tough each stage will be for you, labor and delivery follow three basic stages. Knowing the signs of each stage and what you can do during each phase to help the labour along will put your mind and ease and help you know what you can expect on the big day.

Stage 1: Labor

Labor actually has two phases: initial (or latent) and active. In the very beginning of labor, many women aren’t sure if they are actually in labor or not. If you have been having strong Braxton Hicks contractions in the weeks leading up to labor, you may actually be in labor for several hours without realizing it, as you may have been writing off your contractions as Braxton Hicks. Contractions can feel like menstrual cramps at first, but they gradually (or not so gradually, depending on the circumstances) become more and more intense and painful. During this stage your cervix is starting to open up (dilate), but the baby isn’t ready to come out yet! During the first hours of initial labor, while pain is still minimal, your cervix is also thinning and pulling back (known as effacing) and you will get to about 1 1/2 inches, or 4cm dilated. This initial phase of labor averages 8 1/2 hours for first pregnancies and 5 hours for subsequent pregnancies.

During active labor, contractions get more painful and rhythmic. Depending on how far you live from the hospital in which you plan to deliver, your doctor may have advised you to start your trip when your contractions are 10 minutes apart, or when they are 3-5 minutes apart. If your contractions are not rhythmic but are strong and getting closer together, hop in the car and get to the hospital. During this phase, the baby starts to descend into the birth canal, and you may start to feel a strong urge to push. Due to the risk of overstraining yourself or even tearing yourself if you push before you are fully dilated, you must resist the urge to push until your doctor or midwife tells you it is alright to do so! At the end of this phase you will be fully dilated (4 inches or 10cm) and that is when your doctor will cue you to push in time with your contractions. This phase of labor lasts an average of 5 to 7 hours in first pregnancies and 2 to 4 hours in subsequent pregnancies.

Stage 2: Delivery

Although you may feel as though you’ve done plenty of work enduring pain during Stage 1, it is during Stage 2 that the tough work really begins. You will have to push with each contraction and relax in between contractions to help your baby make his way out into the world. Once the baby’s head is out, the rest comes out rather easily, but getting that head out is quite a difficult task! This stage usually lasts 45 to 60 minutes. This is where you’ll be using your breathing exercises, or relying heavily on your partner for support as you try to push through the pain with perfect timing.

Stage 3: Delivery of the Placenta

You may think your work is done, but it’s not quite over yet! Although you may not notice because of the joy of holding your new baby in your arms, your uterus will still be contracting, trying to expel the placenta, the organ which has been nourishing your baby inside of you all these months. Luckily placentas are smaller and more flexible than babies’ heads, so it will come out much more easily, and then you can have some well-deserved rest with your little one!

Although thinking about the labor ahead of you can be daunting, being well-informed and prepared makes this wonderful, life-changing experience less frightening.


Merck Manuals Online Medical Library

What To Expect When You’re Expecting (Print Book, 2009 Edition)