Understanding the Phases of Labor

Wondering what you can expect from childbirth? Take a look at our breakdown of what happens and when during labor and delivery.

Stage One: Early Labor (Phase 1/Stage 1)

What to Expect: Stage one is a huge part of your labor and delivery. This first stage is when everything happens but the birth of your baby.

During early labor (the beginning phase of stage one) you will dilate up to three centimeters. You’ll also experience contractions (about 30 to 45 seconds long and coming every five to 20 minutes apart). These contractions are mild and comparable to menstrual cramps. You may have a backache and mild diarrhea.

Timeline: Expect this early phase of labor to last approximately eight to nine hours if you are not being induced. Some women will not even realize they have begun labor until the end of this early phase.

Stage One: Active Labor (Phase 2/Stage 1)

What to Expect: You will dilate from four to seven centimeters during this active phase of labor. Contractions will lengthen, lasting from 45 to 60 seconds and should come at two- to five-minute intervals. Your contractions will be stronger, and your membranes may rupture if they have not already done so. Chances are you’ll begin to experience a backache and feel an increase in your concentration, too, as you prepare mentally and physically for the birth of your baby.

Timeline: This phase of labor will last for about three to four hours.

Stage One: Transition Phase (Phase 3/Stage 1)

What to Expect: This is the most challenging stage of labor! You will dilate eight to 10 centimeters and your contractions will last 60 to 120 seconds. Your rest periods between contractions will shorten, lasting just 30 to 90 seconds. Your contractions will now be very intense; you may start feeling like you want to push, but your doctor or midwife will let you know when the time is right.

Some women experience nausea and vomiting during the transition phase. You may feel very sleepy and doze between contractions. Your mood might even be irritable as you experience hot flashes, chills, and feel a little shaky. If you didn’t have an epidural, you may now have a severe lower backache. You may also feel a lot of pressure in the rectal area.

Timeline: This part of your labor will last between 10 and 60 minutes.

Stage Two: Birth of the Baby

What to Expect: Your contractions will shorten and you’ll have more time in between contractions to rest. You may feel a “second wind” of strength.

The urge to push may be uncontrollable now. If you choose to have an epidural, however, you may not feel this urge to push. If this is the case, your healthcare provider will help you know when the time is right to push by watching your contractions on a monitor.

The contractions during this phase last approximately 50 to 90 seconds and come every two to five minutes. You’ll feel some extreme back and rectal pressure. If you are having natural childbirth or if you use mild medication such as demerol, you will feel a pins-and-needles sensation in your vaginal area from the baby’s head crowning.

Timeline: This part of your birth will last between 20 minutes and two hours.

Stage Three: Delivery of the Placenta

What to Expect: You may have mild contractions during the delivery of the placenta as it detaches from the uterus and is pushed out.

Timeline: Delivery of the afterbirth takes between five and 20 minutes.

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