Stages of Labor Explained

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If you’re pregnant with your first baby, or if it’s been a while since your last pregnancy, learning about the stages of labor before your due date can help you know what to expect. First and foremost, it’s important to understand that every woman’s labor is different and it may be different each time you have a baby. However, there are patterns of labor that will hold true for most women. To help you feel ready for your baby’s birth, here is a brief explanation of the three stages of labor and what happens during each:

Stage 1: Labor

The first stage of labor is defined as the time of the onset of true labor until the cervix is completely dilated to 10 cm. This stage is also the longest and involves three phases.

  • Early labor begins when you go into labor until the cervix is dilated 3 cm.
  • Active labor occurs as the cervix continues to dilate from 3 cm to 7 cm.
  • Transition is the final phase of the first stage when the cervix continues to dilate fully to 10 cm.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, early labor typically lasts 8-12 hours with contractions lasting about 30-45 seconds anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes apart. Contractions generally start out mild and may be irregular, but during this phase will become progressively stronger and more frequent. It is also during this phase that your water might break. 

On average, the active labor phase will last 3-5 hours with contractions lasting about 45-60 seconds roughly 3-5 minutes apart. If you didn’t already head to the hospital when your water broke in the first phase, this is usually the time to head to the hospital.

Although it is the shortest phase, the transition phase is the most challenging. Transition typically lasts 30 minutes to 2 hours as your cervix fully dilates from 8 cm to 10 cm. Contractions will last roughly 60-90 seconds with only 30 seconds to 2 minutes between. Due to the length and intensity of contractions, women may experience hot flashes, chills, nausea or vomiting. You may also feel a lot of pressure in your lower back and rectum, but if you start feeling the need to push, be sure to tell your provider. 

Stage 2: Pushing and Birth

The second stage of labor begins once you are fully dilated to 10 cm. Your provider will let you know that it is time to start pushing your baby out. This stage can be as short as 20 minutes or as long as a few hours. Here are some important things to know about the second stage of labor: 

  • Your contractions may slow down to come every 2 to 5 minutes apart. They last about 60 to 90 seconds.
  • Push during contractions and rest between them. Push when you feel the urge or when your provider tells you.
  • If you’re uncomfortable or pushing has stopped, try a new position until you find one that is comfortable for you. You can squat, sit, kneel or lie back.
  • You may get an episiotomy, a small cut made at the opening of the vagina to help let the baby out. Most women don’t need an episiotomy but may tear naturally. 
  • Your provider will help guide your baby out of the birth canal. Special tools, like forceps or suction, may be needed to help your baby out.
  • Your baby is born, the umbilical cord will need to be cut. Considering adding instructions in your birth plan about who you would like to cut the umbilical.

Stage 3: Delivery of the Placenta

What some women may not realize is that after you deliver your baby, you still have to deliver the placenta–the organ that developed in your uterus and supplied food and oxygen to your baby throughout your pregnancy through the umbilical cord. This is the short stage of labor and for most women, it typically lasts fewer than 20 minutes. If you had an episiotomy or natural tearing, it will be repaired during this time. If you’ve elected to store your umbilical cord blood, this is also the time your provider will collect it. 

You may still experience mild contractions before and even after the placenta is delivered as your uterus begins to start contracting back to its normal size. But, as your provider is helping to deliver the placenta and make any repairs you can enjoy the first few moments with your baby with skin-to-skin contact. You can also start breastfeeding right away, as most women are able to start breastfeeding within 1 hour of their baby’s birth. 

After you’ve successfully navigated through all three stages of labor, relish in the amazing feat that your body just accomplished. And, remember to be kind to yourself in the hours, days and months ahead. Your care team at Kernodle OB/GYN is here for you every step of the way from pre-conception, throughout your pregnancy and postpartum. You can call us at (336) 538-2367 or use our patient portal, Duke MyChart, to send a secure message to your care team about any non-urgent medical questions or needs that you may have.  

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