Labor is typically divided into multiple stages. Like with pregnancy, dividing labor into separate stages allows healthcare professionals and laboring women to know what is happening in the body at any given time, and it helps them predict how soon the baby will arrive.
There are three stages of labor, with each being defined by variables like dilation or thickness of the cervix, or where the baby is located in the birth canal. These different phases and their descriptions vary between women – for example, some stages may last longer or be less intense for different women – but specific aspects of each phase occur in most women’s experiences of labor.
- Phase 1: Early (latent) labor: There are two distinct phases to this stage: early labor and active labor. Early labor comes first, with the uterine muscles contracting to dilate the cervix. Some women see bloody show. Early labor is just the beginning of the road, and can last awhile: women can be in early labor for up to fourteen hours. If you notice bright red bleeding or fluid leakage at this time, it’s best to go to the hospital.
- Phase 2: Active labor: The second phase, active labor, begins once the cervix is dilated about 6 centimeters. Contractions get stronger and more regular, and most women become significantly more uncomfortable with the contractions and feelings of pressure in the rectum and lower back. Eventually, contractions become roughly 60 seconds long and occur every 3-5 minutes, and the cervix continues to dilate until it reaches the maximum 10 cm, often at a rate of about 1 cm/hour. This part is sometimes referred to as the ‘transition’, and it is considerably more intense than the previous parts of labor.
In this phase, women may begin to experience the sensation of needing to push, as the cervix is fully dilated and the uterine muscles are regularly contracting to move the baby down the birth canal. The length of stage 2 varies from woman to woman, as does the variety of positions or techniques that she is advised to use with contractions. When the baby’s head begins to show, the healthcare provider helps guide the baby out. Phase 2 of the childbirth process ends when the baby has completely exited the vagina and a doctor or loved one cuts the umbilical cord.
Stage 3 solely involves the expulsion of the placenta, and generally takes about 30 minutes. Although the baby is born at this point, this phase is crucial because the afterbirth cannot stay in the woman’s body and must be pushed out. The uterus continues to contract even after the baby has exited, causing the laboring woman to feel contractions, and also to possibly shake or feel chills. The healthcare provider may or may not ask the woman to push, depending on the need at the time. If there is difficulty in removing the placenta, your healthcare provider may need to perform additional procedures to help remove it, as a retained placenta can increase the risk for infection or hemorrhage.
After the entire process is complete, the woman has finished delivering the placenta and can now rest and recover from giving birth. Her blood pressure, pulse, and temperature are monitored, and any repairs to the body from tearing or lacerations are made by her provider. If the woman has decided to breastfeed, she is encouraged to do so right away as it helps decrease the amount of bleeding from the uterus. The baby is eventually taken to a nursery specifically for newborns to be examined and then eventually returned to the mother.
Signs to look for
It’s important for women who are at risk for premature labor to be on the lookout for signs of early labor. Some of these signs include pressure or pain in the lower back and pelvis, increased vaginal discharge or persistent leakage of fluid (especially with coughing or sneezing), vaginal bleeding or spotting, and five or more contractions occurring over the course of an hour. Any of these signs could indicate that the woman is going into preterm labor, so it is crucial to call a healthcare provider if any of these appear.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
- Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Pregnancy and birth: When your baby’s due date has passed. 2018. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279571/
- Michigan Medicine Healthwise Staff. Pregnancy: Dropping (Lightening). University of Michigan. 2019. Web. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aa88159
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. How to Tell When Labor Begins. 2020. Web. https://www.acog.org/patient-resources/faqs/labor-delivery-and-postpartum-care/how-to-tell-when-labor-begins
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Stages of labor and birth: Baby, it’s time! Mayo Clinic. 2020. Web. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/labor-and-delivery/in-depth/stages-of-labor/art-20046545
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Water breaking: Understand this sign of labor. Mayo Clinic. 2019. Web. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/labor-and-delivery/in-depth/water-breaking/art-20044142