The day your baby is born will likely be the most memorable and beautiful day of your life. But moms know, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. It will also likely be the bloodiest, messiest, and most chaotic day of life your life. And that’s the miracle of life! 

The journey of labor gets broken up into 3 stages. The first—and longest—stage begins when you start having contractions (and there will be a lot of ‘em!)

What Should I Expect During Stage 1 Labor?

Your uterus is a strong muscle. When you’re in labor, it switches between tensing (or contracting) and relaxing. With each squeeze, your baby is pushed downwards…which presses her head against your cervix. This will cause your cervix to efface (thin) and dilate (open up), but don’t expect this to happen quickly.

What Does Early Labor Feel Like?

Labor usually starts off slow. If it’s your first pregnancy—and you are low-risk—your doctors may recommend that you labor at home for most of this stage. Try to stay relaxed, drink lots of water, and fuel up with light, carb-rich meals. If you can manage to get some shut-eye…do! Giving birth is a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t tire yourself out too much early on.

As your contractions begin to become more frequent, you will want to time the length of the contraction and the time between them (from the start of one to the start of the next—not to the end).

When you arrive, the doctors will look to see how far you’ve dilated. If you need to dilate more, they may send you back home or tell you to go out for a walk or to get some food.

What do Contractions Feel Like? 

Some women say that the beginning of stage 1 feels like period cramps or a lower-back ache, but soon, the contractions become longer, more frequent, and more intense. For new moms, this stage usually lasts about 6-12 hrs., but might drag on for a day or longer. (For second-time moms, things can go a whole lot faster!)

Signs of Active Labor  

Once you begin active labor, you’ll have painful contractions around a minute long and 3-5 minutes apart. You may have trouble talking or move around. At this point, your cervix will be dilated between 3-10 centimeters. (It’s common to dilate 1 cm/hr, but like in early labor, it’s different for every woman.) If you’re opting for an epidural, the time is…now!

Transition Stage 

Transition is the most intense stage…but also the shortest! You'll be dilating those last few centimeters and your contractions will be coming often. Stage 1 ends when your cervix has stretched to 10 centimeters (fully dilated).  

What can I expect during Stage 2 Labor?

When you reach the second stage, things will start to speed up.

Once fully dilated, you’ll move on to pushing! Some women can control the pushing process, but if you’re numb from an epidural, your doctor/midwife will likely coach you on when to push hard and when to slow down to allow your body to relax and open.

Throughout this stage, the baby travels from the opening of the uterus, through the fully-dilated cervix, to the opening of the vagina. From there, you’ll feel an immense amount of pressure.

Your doctors will measure your baby’s head as it comes down, inch by inch until finally, you can see the top of the head (also known as crowning). During this stage, you can gently massage the lining of the vagina (what’s known as perineal massage) to help it stretch. 

A baby’s head comes out in a twisting manner…just as you twist a cork out of a wine bottle. Once the head is out doctors will ask you to push hard—again—to get your baby’s shoulders out. Luckily, the rest of her body will slide out pretty easily, like a slippery, little fish. Unless your baby requires immediate medical care, she will be placed on your chest and covered with a warm blanket.

What can I expect during Stage 3 Labor?

After delivering your baby, the journey isn't actually over yet…you still need to deliver the placenta. But don’t fret, it’s the easiest stage and usually just falls right out after a couple of minutes. This is what’s known as afterbirth. 

For mothers who plan to breastfeed, it’s best to start right away. (And, breastfeeding will cause your uterus to contract, helping to expel the placenta and shrink in size.)  You’ll also lose a lot of blood, so your caregiver will massage your belly to get the blood out and help your uterus shrink. At this point, some women will have a catheter, but if you don’t, the doctors may ask you to pee because a full bladder can prevent the uterus from draining all the way.

If you have any tears or episiotomy cuts, your doctor or midwife will stitch them up. If you got an epidural, you won’t feel this, but if you didn’t, you’ll be given some local anesthesia. (It rarely hurts because the whole process usually makes the labia a bit numb.)

Note: After this incredible journey, it’s not uncommon to find yourself shaking uncontrollably for minutes…even up to an hour. It may feel odd but trust us: You’re okay! It’s believed the shaking is caused by the adrenaline of birth or sudden hormonal shifts. 

View more posts tagged Pregnancy, health & safety