Labor experiences are different for every woman, and can even be vastly different for every pregnancy. How quickly and smoothly the process goes depends on a lot of different factors, like whether or not you’re a first-time mom or a pro.
Even though each birth can be so different, all women go through the same three stages of labor (unless they have a planned or emergency C-section), so knowing what those stages look like can help you mentally prepare for what’s ahead.
Stage 1: Early and Active Labor
Stage 1 is actually broken into two parts – early labor and active labor. It is also the longest stage and can last anywhere from an hour to 12+ hours.
- Early Labor – Early labor officially starts when you begin to have regular contractions that cause your cervix to begin to efface (thin out) and dilate (open). It ends when your cervix has dilated to 3 cm.
Contractions during early labor are generally mild and last between 30-90 seconds; however, they get more frequent and intense as you approach active labor.
- Active Labor – Active labor begins when your cervix is dilated to 4 cm and ends when it is completely dilated to 10 cm. The time between 8 cm and 10 cm is often referred to as “transition.”
Active labor is the most difficult phase because contractions begin to rise in intensity and length. During this phase, it’s important to practice breathing techniques and relaxation exercises. It’s also helpful to change positions and figure out what is most comfortable for you.
Stage 2: Delivering the Baby
Once your cervix is fully dilated, it’s time to push! When your body is ready, you begin to have a strong urgency to push and move into the second stage of labor. This stage can last a while for some women and only minutes for others.
Many women find that contractions are not as strong or intense during this phase as they were during transition. Often the ability to push the baby while contracting provides a bit of relief.
Stage 3: Delivering the Placenta
Once you’ve pushed the baby out, the hard work is over. You can relax and enjoy the new life that you’ve just brought into the world. One last step that remains, though, is getting the placenta out.
After the baby’s birth, you should feel some mild contractions that begin to separate the placenta from the uterine wall. Usually a small push will deliver the placenta, which shouldn’t cause much pain or discomfort.
If you’d like to read more on labor, pain management and contractions, read: Understanding and Identifying Braxton Hicks Contractions