By Mayo Clinic Staff, Mayo Clinic
Every woman's labor is unique, even from one pregnancy to the next.
In some cases, labor is over in a matter of hours. In other cases, labor
tests a mother's physical and emotional stamina.
You won't know how your labor will unfold until it happens. You can
prepare, however, by understanding the typical sequence of events.
Stage 1: Early labor and active labor
The first stage of labor occurs
when the cervix opens (dilates) and thins out (effaces) to allow the
baby to move into the birth canal. This is the longest of the three
stages of labor. It's actually divided into two phases of its own -
early labor and active labor.
During early labor, your cervix will begin to dilate. You'll feel mild
contractions during early labor. They will typically last 30 to 90
seconds and come at regular intervals. Near the end of early labor, your
contractions will likely be less than five minutes apart.
As your cervix begins to open, you might notice a brown or
blood-tinged discharge from your vagina. This is likely the mucus plug
that blocks the cervical opening, also known as bloody show.
How long it lasts: Early labor is unpredictable. For
first-time moms, the average length of early labor is six to 12 hours.
It's often much shorter for subsequent deliveries.
What you can do: Until your contractions increase in
frequency and intensity, it's up to you. For many women, early labor
isn't particularly uncomfortable. You might feel like doing household
chores, taking a walk or watching a movie - or you might simply continue
your daily activities.
To promote comfort during early labor:
- - Take a shower or bath
- - Listen to relaxing music
- - Have a gentle massage
- - Try slow, deep breathing or relaxation techniques taught in childbirth class
- - Change positions
- - Drink fluids
- - Eat light, healthy snacks
- - Apply ice packs or heat to your lower back
Now it's time for the real work to begin. During active labor, your
cervix will dilate to 10 centimeters (cm). Your contractions will become
stronger, longer, closer together and regular. Your legs might cramp,
and you might feel nauseous. You might feel your water break - if it
hasn't already. You might feel increasing pressure in your back as well.
If you haven't headed to your labor and delivery facility yet, now's
Don't be surprised if your initial excitement wanes as your labor
progresses and the pain intensifies. Don't feel that you're giving up if
you ask for pain medication or anesthesia. Your health care team will
partner with you to make the best choice for you and your baby.
Remember, you're the only one who can judge your need for pain relief.
How long it lasts: Active labor often lasts up to
eight hours. For some women, active labor lasts hours longer. For others
- especially those who've had a previous vaginal delivery - active
labor is much shorter.
What you can do: Look to your labor coach and health
care team for encouragement and support. Try breathing and relaxation
techniques to combat your growing discomfort. Use what you learned in
childbirth class or ask your health care team for suggestions.
To promote comfort during active labor:
- - Change positions
- - Roll on a large rubber ball (birthing ball)
- - Take a warm shower or bath
- - Take a walk, stopping to breathe through contractions
- - Have a gentle massage between contractions
The lst part of active labor - often referred to as transition - can
be particularly intense. If you feel the urge to push but you're not
fully dilated, your health care provider might ask you to hold back.
Pushing too soon could cause your cervix to swell, which might delay
delivery. Pant or blow your way through the contractions.
Stage 2: The birth of your baby
It's time! You'll deliver your baby during the second stage of labor.
How long it lasts: It can take from a few minutes up
to a few hours or more to push your baby into the world. It often takes
longer for first-time moms and women who've had an epidural.
What you can do: Push! You might be encouraged to
push with each contraction to speed the process. Or you might take it
more slowly, letting nature do the work until you feel the urge to push.
When you push, don't hold tension in your face. Bear down and
concentrate on pushing where it counts. Experiment with different
positions until you find one that feels best. You can push while
squatting, sitting, kneeling - even on your hands and knees.
At some point, you might be asked to push more gently - or not at
all. Slowing down gives your vaginal tissues time to stretch rather than
tear. To stay motivated, you might ask to feel the baby's head between
your legs or see it in a mirror.
After your baby's head is delivered, his or her airway will be
cleared and your health care provider will make sure the umbilical cord
is free. The rest of your baby's body will follow shortly.
Stage 3: Delivery of the placenta
After your baby is born, you'll likely feel a great sense of relief. You
might hold the baby in your arms or on your abdomen. Cherish the
moment. But a lot is still happening. During the third stage of labor,
your health care provider will deliver the placenta and make sure your
bleeding is under control.
How long it lasts: The placenta is typically delivered in about five minutes. In some cases, it might take up to 30 minutes.
What you can do: Relax! By now your focus has likely
shifted to your baby. You might be oblivious to what's going on around
you. If you'd like, try breast-feeding your baby.
You'll continue to have mild contractions. You might also experience
chills or shakiness. Your health care provider might massage your lower
abdomen to encourage your uterus to contract and expel the placenta. You
might be asked to push one more time to deliver the placenta, which
usually comes out with a small gush of blood.
Your health care provider will examine the placenta to make sure it's
intact. Any remaining fragments must be removed from the uterus to
prevent bleeding and infection. If you're interested, ask to see the
Your health care provider will also determine whether you need stitches
or other repair work. If you do, you'll receive an injection of local
anesthetic in the area to be stitched if it's not numb already. You
might also be given medication to encourage uterine contractions and
Savor this special time with your baby. Your preparation, pain and effort have paid off. Revel in the miracle of birth.