January 20, 2023
Pregnancy is a wild ride. You’re literally growing a human being inside you and if you’re a first time mom, you’ve never done this before so it can be a little nerve wracking not knowing what to expect. One of the best things you can do is take a childbirth education course to give you in-depth knowledge. Knowledge is power!
Early labor can last from hours to days. During this time, you will be experiencing contractions that gradually get stronger and more frequent. The cervix will begin to open (dilate) as your body prepares for delivery. I described early labor as “crampy” and it felt like when my period cramps are at their worst. The first stage of labor is mainly distinguished by how dilated the cervix is and the characteristics of the contractions. Within this first stage, there are three phases: early, active and transition. Here’s about how long each phase typically lasts:
In the latent phase, contractions start out mild and irregular, typically lasting for less than a minute. For me, they were too uncomfortable to sleep through but relieved quite a bit with a warm bath. They’ll gradually become stronger and more frequent as your cervix dilates. During this phase, you may notice thick pink or red vaginal discharge – this is the mucus plug that helped keep bacteria from passing through the cervix during pregnancy.
You may have reached active labor once your contractions last for around a minute and have been occurring at least every 5 minutes for an hour (or ever 7 minutes if it’s not your first baby). Other signs that it’s time to go to the hospital or birth center if you aren’t having a homebirth include:
The end of active labor is sometimes referred to as the transition to the second stage of labor. It’s when the cervix completely dilates to a full 10 centimeters, and is the shortest – but generally considered the hardest – part of labor. If this is your first time giving birth, transition may take up to a few hours, or it may progress quickly. Contractions will be the longest, strongest and most frequent so far.
During the transition phase, you may also feel pressure in the lower back and rectum and eventually an urge to push.
The second stage of labor begins once your cervix is fully dilated, and ends when your baby is born. It may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. It’s possible that this stage could take longer if you find it harder to push from the numbness of an epidural, or if it’s your first time giving birth.
The second stage of labor is all about pushing. Your doctor or midwife will guide you through how and when to push – you may be instructed to push when you feel the urge, or when you’re having a contraction. Contractions could remain as intense as they were at the end of stage one, but they may be a little less frequent.
Once your baby has been born, you’re in the third stage of labor. This stage is considered complete once the placenta has been delivered, which generally happens within 30 minutes of childbirth.
You’ll continue to have contractions, but they’ll be milder. These contractions will move the placenta out of your uterus, and over the next few days, help your uterus return to its normal size. If necessary, your care provider will remove any remaining tissue from your uterus.
It’s finally time to hold your baby! Most babies are ready to breastfeed shortly after birth. Breastfeeding releases the hormone oxytocin, which encourages helpful, post-birth contractions and reduces bleeding. And if you don’t plan to breastfeed, you’ll still get to hold them skin-to-skin to begin bonding.
These first hours after birth mark the start of your recovery, and are sometimes referred to as the fourth stage of labor. Your care team may monitor your blood pressure and other vital signs, and they’ll make sure you aren’t bleeding too much. They may give you abdominal massages to promote contractions and control bleeding.
You may find that you get chills or shakes during this stage, so ask for a blanket if you need one. If you had an epidural, the tube will be removed from your back, and if you had any small tears during delivery, you’ll be given local anesthetic and stitches.
By understanding the three stages of labor, you can prepare for what lies ahead. It is important to remember that each woman’s experience will differ from the next, so it is best to stay open minded and flexible.
Talk with your healthcare providers about what you can expect so that you can be prepared for the labor process. Your provider may also provide helpful advice on how to cope with pain during labor as well as relaxation techniques which can help make the process more manageable.
With the right support, you’ll be able to welcome your new baby with confidence!