Stages of Labor
What Can I Expect?

You probably know you’ll experience different stages of labor, but maybe you have a few questions. What are the labor stages and what’s happening? Here I’ll explain the three stages of labor, and give you a general guideline of what you can expect.

Labor may seem like it's 113 stages long or so, but I promise there really are only three labor stages. OK, so one of them might go on for hours… you got me there.

The first stage is actually broken down into three phases- latent, active and transition stage. The second stage of labor is when you’ll get to actually meet your new little one, and during the third stage of labor you’ll deliver your placenta.

First Stage of Labor

This stage of labor begins with the onset of labor and ends when your cervix is completely dilated. The first stage of labor is broken into three separate stages of labor, and sometimes also a resting phase at the end.

Latent First Stage (Early Labor)

What’s Happening: Your cervix will begin to thin, soften, and dilate from 0-3cm.

Signs: You may lose your mucus plug and have heavy discharge during early labor. You might also begin leaking amniotic fluid. You may also notice your baby settling down and not moving as much.

Contractions at this stage of labor can last anywhere from 10 to 40 seconds, with 3-20 minutes in between. They may hurt, but you can usually still walk and talk during early labor contractions.

How Long: Latent labor can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. The length of this phase doesn’t indicate how long active labor will be. Some women don’t have any signs of early labor, and others have periods of regular contractions for a couple weeks before active labor starts.

Active First Stage

What’s Happening: By this time, your cervix will be fully effaced, and will open from 4-10cm. Your baby will move all the way down into your pelvis, ready to be born.

Signs: Your contractions will be much stronger during active labor. You’ll probably need to focus more during this tougher time of labor. You may start to make more noise during your contractions. This is the phase of labor where you’re trying anything to stay comfortable.

Active labor contractions gradually get longer and closer together. They last a minute or more and can be anywhere from 2-10 min apart.

How Long: Active labor can be just a couple hours long, or it may be up to 16 hours or more. Usually, active labor is longer for first time moms.

Transition

What’s Happening: Transition is the end of active labor. It is the stage of labor that your cervix dilates from 8-10cm.

Signs: Your contractions are the strongest during transition. They are very close together, sometimes so close you feel like you don’t get a break at all. Usually contractions come every 2 minutes at this point and last about 90 seconds. A strong indicator of transition is a feeling that you can’t make it through. You may get really agitated and shaky. You will probably also feel a strong pressure down below, like you need to poop. That’s your baby pressing on your bowels. Nice, huh? Although this is the most difficult part of labor, remember that it’s almost over. Trust me, you CAN get through it!

How Long: Good news- transition doesn’t last long. It can last just a few minutes up to an hour.

Rest Phase

Some women experience a rest phase between transition and the second stage of labor. Labor may seem to stop altogether for a bit after the intense contractions of transition. If you’re one of the lucky women who have a rest phase, enjoy it! Catch your breath, get a drink, or go to the bathroom. Some women have an hour rest phase. Many women don’t feel this stage at all. They go from transition to immediately feeling the urge to push.

Second Stage of Labor

Now you get to actually meet your baby. Oh, wait, you have to get the baby out first. Long awaited, and much feared: the pushing stage. You are now completely dilated and baby is ready to leave your womb. You will probably feel a lot of pressure and possibly the urge to push. By this time, pushing with the pressure will probably be a relief. You know you’re in the home stretch.

If this is your first baby, you will get acquainted with what is quite accurately referred to as the “ring of fire.” This is your baby’s head coming through a hole that seems unfairly small for such a task. Push through it, and you’re done. Ahhh…

During the second stage of labor, contractions are about 90 seconds long and 2-5 min apart. This stage can last about an hour or two in first time moms, many times less. For subsequent births, the pushing stage usually lasts less than an hour.

Third Stage of Labor

The baby’s out, so you might be wondering: what the heck is the third stage? You still need to release the placenta. After a period of rest once the baby is out, you’ll feel one final light contraction and your placenta will come out. Delivering the placenta isn’t painful, and in fact, can actually be soothing to your traumatized bottom.

Hopefully this gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect of the three stages of labor. Keep in mind, though, that every labor, and every woman is different. Labor doesn't fit into a neat little box most of the time (wouldn't that be nice?). You may not experience the stages of labor just as I've described. Even if your birth isn't "textbook," you can still be sure you'll go through all three stages of labor.

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