Signs & Stages

What are the signs of labor?

Signs of labor vary from woman to woman, as each woman experiences labor differently. Some common signs of labor may include:

Bloody show

A small amount of mucus, slightly mixed with blood, may be expelled from the vagina indicating a woman is in labor.


Contractions (uterine muscle spasms) occurring at intervals of less than 10 minutes are usually a sign that labor has begun. Contractions may become more frequent and severe as labor progresses.

Rupture of amniotic sac (bag of waters)

Labor sometimes begins with amniotic fluid gushing or leaking from the vagina. Women who experience a rupture of the amniotic sac should go to the hospital immediately and contact their health care provider.

Most women go into labor within hours after the amniotic sac breaks. 

If labor still has not begun after 24 hours, a woman may be hospitalized for labor to be induced. This step is often taken to prevent infections and delivery complications.

If you are unsure if labor is beginning, call your health care provider.

What are the different stages of labor?

Each labor is different. However, labor typically is divided into 3 stages:

First stage

This is the onset of labor to complete dilation and is divided into the latent phase and the active phase. Women can have very strong, painful contractions during the latent phase. 

Pregnant Woman in Labor The cervix dilates (opens approximately 3 or 4 centimeters) and effaces (thins out). Some women may not recognize that they are in labor if their contractions are mild and irregular.

The latent phase is when contractions become more frequent (usually 5 to 20 minutes apart) and somewhat stronger. This is usually the longest and least intense phase of labor. The mother-to-be may be admitted to the hospital during this phase. Pelvic exams are done to determine amount of dilation.

The active phase is signaled by the dilation of the cervix from 6 to 10 centimeters. Contractions become regular, longer, more severe and more frequent (usually 3 to 4 minutes apart).

In most cases, the active phase is shorter than the latent phase.

Second stage

The second stage of labor starts when the cervix is completely opened and ends with the delivery of the baby.

The second stage is often referred to as the "pushing" stage.

During the second stage, the woman becomes actively involved by pushing the baby through the birth canal to the outside world. When the baby's head is visible at the opening of the vagina, it is called "crowning."

The second stage is shorter than the first stage, and may take up to four hours for a woman's first pregnancy.

Third stage

After the baby is delivered, the new mother enters the third and final stage of labor – delivery of the placenta (the organ that has nourished the baby inside of the uterus). This stage usually lasts just a few minutes up to a half-hour. This stage involves the passage of the placenta out of the uterus and through the vagina.

Each labor experience is different and the amount of time in each stage will vary, though labor is generally shorter for subsequent pregnancies.

Learn more about labor