A pregnant mother is about to experience labor.

What to expect: the stages of labor and delivery

An approaching delivery date is exciting for expectant moms. A new baby is coming soon! It’s a blessing.

However, an approaching delivery can also be extremely nerve-wracking. After all, a new baby is coming soon! How will you know when it’s time? What should you expect during labor?

Whether you’re having a vaginal birth or a C-section, the unknown can be scary. Let’s look at the three stages of labor and delivery, so you have some idea of what to expect when giving birth.

First stage of childbirth: labor

The first stage of giving birth is labor. Labor begins with contractions – a major cause of labor pains – and lasts until delivery. This stage can be further divided into early labor and active labor.

Labor is typically the longest stage of childbirth. How long it lasts can vary widely, but women giving birth for the first time tend to experience longer labor than those who have given birth before. The average labor time for a first baby is 12-24 hours.

Early labor

As the woman’s cervix begins to thin and dilate in preparation for childbirth, contractions begin. Lasting 30-60 seconds each, contractions hit every 5-20 minutes.

The thinning and widening of the cervix causes cervical blood vessels to burst and bleed, leading to what is called a “bloody show.” That’s when cervical blood mixed with mucus from the mucus plug is discharged through the vagina.

The early labor stage can last up to 20 hours for some women, according to the National Institute of Health. For some – including those who’ve given birth before – this stage can go by much more quickly, however.

Moms-to-be should also be aware of possible Braxton-Hicks contractions, otherwise known as false labor. These are not the same as labor contractions, though, which tell you your body is actually in labor.

These contractions are natural, and actually help prepare other muscles for the work of delivering a baby.

“Braxton-Hicks really originate more at the top of your abdomen versus low, which is where you would feel more of the labor contractions,” Robyn said. “Braxton-Hicks are actually strengthening those muscles, getting them prepared for birth.”

Active labor

During active labor, contractions become stronger, last longer and come closer together, making it hard to speak during them or relax in between them. The cervix dilates faster so the baby can pass through. And as the baby moves into the birth canal, the mom-to-be might feel pressure in her lower back.

As the contractions increase in frequency and strength, a woman in labor may feel the urge to push, as well.

“So, all of those things could take a really long time, or they could come really rapidly,” Robyn said. “It’s just kind of depending on your body and how your body responds to labor.”

Second stage of childbirth: baby delivery

The second stage of labor is the delivery.

During the delivery stage, the cervix has fully dilated to 10 centimeters to accommodate the baby and mom begins pushing to help the baby go through the birth canal.

As the baby’s head goes through the vagina, mom may feel pressure on her rectum and have the urge to push, as if she was having a bowel movement.

When the baby’s head begins to show in the vagina, this is called “crowning,” and the health care provider guides the baby to daylight.

This stage can vary widely in length from a few minutes to a few hours, and is usually longer for first-time mothers.

Third stage of childbirth: placenta delivery

The third stage of giving birth is the delivery of the placenta, the organ that provided food and oxygen to the fetus during pregnancy.

At this point, the baby is out and the umbilical cord has been cut. The placenta separates from the uterus wall and comes out the birth canal.

Typically, contractions begin 5-10 minutes after delivery and mom may feel shaky or have chills. Mom may be asked to push some more to help eject the placenta. The provider might assist by pulling gently on the umbilical cord or massaging the uterus.

When to go to the hospital for labor

At what point during childbirth should you go to the hospital? That, too, depends on whether you’ve given birth before.

“Typically, what we say with the first pregnancy is we would want you to come to the hospital when your contractions are occurring every three to five minutes regularly for about an hour,” Robyn said. “It can take quite some time to get to that point for some people, but then there are other people who get to that point really quickly.”

A sure sign that it’s time to grab your bags and head to the hospital is when your water breaks.

“If your water breaks, we really would like for you to come to the hospital because we want to make sure that everything is as it should be and make sure that the baby is tolerating labor well,” Robyn said.

What it comes down to is really just paying attention to your body.

When you feel like you’re becoming really uncomfortable – you’re having difficulty talking through contractions, for example – you should probably go to the hospital. Before that point, you may prefer staying home, however.

After all, a delivery room at the hospital can become a bit crowded. There are typically nurses for both mother and baby, a provider who is delivering the baby, an anesthesiologist and perhaps even a team from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to make sure baby’s vitals are strong after birth. Plus, there are any support people you choose to be there with you.

“If everything is uncomplicated with your pregnancy, it’s OK for you to do a lot of that laboring at home in the comfort of your own home,” Robyn said.

If you experience labor pains and don’t know what to do, you should call your obstetrician or whoever is going to deliver your baby.

Last Updated: March 9, 2023

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Birth & Maternity