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All About Labor and Birth

Understanding the Stages of Labor


There are three different stages of labor. Learn about labor and what you can expect during each stage.

About Labor and Birth: The First Stage

Contractions are the first stage of labor and birth. The contractions will start to open up the cervix and this stage can last for quite a while. In the very early stages of labor, you may have a short contraction every 20 minutes or so, but as labor progresses, these contractions will last longer, become stronger and happen with more frequency. When you're approaching the end of the first stage of labor, you may have a contraction every two or three minutes.

Tips for Getting Through Labor

While some women want to rush to the hospital when they're in early labor, many prefer to go through early labor in the comfort of their home. If you're not certain whether you should stay home or go to the hospital, call your healthcare provider to ask. If they recommend that you stay home, here are some things you can do to help pass the time.

  • Enjoy a long, warm bath.
  • Eat a small meal or a snack to help keep up your energy.
  • Stay busy.
  • Try to get some rest and sleep through contractions if possible.
  • Watch a movie or read a book.

  • Talk a walk.
  • Cuddle with your partner.

About Labor and Birth: The Second Stage

When your cervix has dilated to 4 or 5 centimeters, you're said to be in established labor. It's in this stage that you may be offered pain relief.

Out of all the stages of labor, the second stage is the longest. The contractions will be stronger and happen with more frequency, which helps your cervix dilate even further. This stage can take about 6-12 hours, but can seem longer, especially if you consider early labor a part of your labor and birth process.

Tips for Getting Through Established Labor

Although you may feel the need to push, you can't do this until the cervix is fully open. Being upright can help make this stage easier so instead of lying in the bed consider:

  • Kneeling on the floor, over a chair.
  • Sitting upright in a chair or the bed, propped up by pillows.
  • Kneeling on the bed, supported by pillows and the headboard.

What Happens During Labor and Birth

If you're experiencing your first labor and birth, you're probably not sure what to expect. During each contraction in the stages of labor, your baby will be moving further down the birth canal and then slip back up as the contraction wanes. If you're experiencing a strong urge to push during the contractions, use small breaths and pushes so you can push three to five times with each contraction.

If you have an epidural, you won't be able to feel these contractions, so your healthcare provider may want you to push during the entire contraction. This can be extremely exhausting so make sure your birthing partner is able to tell you when and how long to push if you have an epidural.

pregnant woman in hospital with husband

One thing to realize about labor is that you will get tired. Let your labor partner know what type of support you need and want. He or she can rub your back during a contraction, hold your hand or let you know if the baby's head is visible to give you the encouragement you need to keep going.

The instant your baby is born, you'll feel a rush of water and a warm, slithery feeling. Your healthcare provider can either place your baby directly on your stomach or you can ask that the baby be wrapped in a blanket first. You'll be able to hold your baby and get your first look at the little person who's been growing inside your belly.

About Labor and Birth: the Third Stage

Although your baby has been born, you're not quite done yet. You'll need to deliver the placenta. You may notice small contractions every few minutes, but after going through labor and birth, you might not even notice them. Your healthcare provider may speed up this process by applying gentle pressure to your uterus.

The placenta will typically deliver naturally, but if it doesn't or if only part of it detaches, you may need to have it removed manually. If this is necessary, you'll be given an epidural or spinal (that is if you didn't have one).

Cuts and tears can be common if the perineum stretches too quickly -- pushing gently can help avoid cuts and tears, but sometimes the skin doesn't have the opportunity to stretch slowly. You may experience:

Cutting the perineum. This is known as an episiotomy and can happen if the baby needs to be born quickly. If there is time, the area will be numbed first, but it can also happen during the height of a contraction so that the pain isn't noticed.

Tears. A tear can be less traumatic than an episiotomy. If your healthcare provider thinks the tear will be minor, the skin will be allowed to tear naturally.

Stitches. Some larger tears or an episiotomy will need stitches in order to heal effectively. You'll have to lie down with your feet in stirrups while your healthcare provider stitches you up. If you had an epidural, it will be turned back up, or you'll be given a numbing shot so that the stitches don't hurt.

More About Labor and Birth

How long your stages of labor will last depends on a number of factors, including if this is your first baby, what position the baby is in and when you actually first notice the contractions. Sleeping through the early stages of labor can help it seem shorter so try to get some rest.

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