What to Expect During the Different Stages of Labor

Giving birth is a process. Here's what the different phases and stages of labor are, and what happens during each.
BySharon Phelan, MD
Sep 2018
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The stages of labor describe the sequence of events that happens during labor and birth. There are three stages of labor:

STAGE 1: LABOR (aka holy crap, this kid is coming!)

Labor lasts from the first signs baby’s coming until your cervix is fully dilated and you’re ready to deliver.

Real contractions
You’ll know you’re in labor when you start to have regular contractions, which feel like a strong tightening in your belly and could be super-painful or just a little uncomfortable (it all depends on the mom-to-be). You’ll know they’re real contractions because the pressure usually starts in your back and moves forward to your lower belly, instead of just being in your belly. They’ll be frequent, usually starting about 15 minutes apart and then speeding up to about five minutes apart.

The countdown
Start watching the clock (use our Contraction Counter to keep track). Call your OB’s office and let them know what’s happening. The doctor will tell you at what point to head to the hospital, but be warned: He may say to wait a few hours because it could be too early for you to be admitted.

Your to-dos
So what do you do at home? Finish packing your bag and try to relax. Breathing deeply can help your body work its dilation magic, as can changing positions. Take a walk, nap, shower, listen to your favorite music—whatever you feel like doing.

Active labor
When your body shifts into active labor, the contractions will come on stronger. You might not be able to walk or talk during a contraction. At this point, you’ll likely be in the hospital (if not, go ASAP), lying in bed, walking around or sitting in a birthing tub or on a birthing ball. This is when things start to really hurt, and when most moms-to-be opt for pain relief. These strong contractions dilate your cervix from 4 centimeters to 7 centimeters.

The transition
The transition phase is when your cervix dilates from 7 centimeters to 10 centimeters, and it’s pretty intense. The contractions come even faster and more furiously than before, lasting 60 to 90 seconds each. And because it’s an overwhelming sensation, some women feel like giving up. Just know that the “I can’t do it anymore” feeling is completely normal, and you most definitely can do it.

The urge to push
You’ll start to feel the need to push (like having to go number two badly), but you shouldn’t push until your doctor says your cervix is fully dilated (so as to not risk injury).

STAGE 2: DELIVERY (aka why you did kegels)

Once you’re fully dilated and you get the go-ahead to push—push! You’ll get coached as you bear down at each contraction. For some women, especially second- or third- (or more) time moms, the pushing stage may last only a few minutes. For others, it can take a few hours. Then there’s the ultimate reward: baby!

STAGE 3: THE PLACENTA (aka you’re not done—yet)

After baby’s born, you’ve got to deliver the placenta. Your uterus continues to contract (Don’t worry—this normally doesn’t hurt.) This causes the placenta to separate from the uterus and leave the body. Usually, this takes less than a half hour. Then you’re (finally) done.

Congrats! Now enjoy that baby and try to get some rest.

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