Going through childbirth is a lot like life: Despite the many surprises or hurdles thrown your way, you can feel confident, empowered, and capable of creating a positive experience if you’re flexible with all the things you can’t control and stay present to the moment—and have a killer community.
And if you’re like me—that is, someone who didn’t understand this before birth and parenthood—well, you’re in for a glorious journey.
Still…as a first-time parent preparing for birth, you might have a few practical questions about what the stages of labor and delivery are like.
Here’s the secret: Ask any repeat parent and they’ll tell you, “No one ever told me that ‘when you know, you know’ describes active labor just as much as finding true love.”
While you’re waiting for labor to begin, attempting to differentiate between Braxton Hicks, a growing baby, and contractions, let this be your takeaway: If you’re questioning what is going on in your body (how strong is this contraction? Is this it?! How many contractions have I had?), it’s likely not active labor. But if you can't tell what's going on, because let's be real, it's hard to know the difference the first time around, it's always best to reach out to your provider!
If you’re looking to learn more about the stages of labor, how to find the best childbirth classes online, tips for a natural birth (scratch that, no form of birth is unnatural. But I will share tips to have an unmedicated birth), or stories of women giving birth, you’ve come to the right place!
Here are top questions from first-time women giving birth about what to expect from the stages of labor:
What are the early signs of labor?
Here are a few “soft” signs that might mean you’re *closer* to going into labor:
● Your baby drops (known as lightening): this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to go into labor, but it is very exciting to be able to breathe again and realize that your baby is even closer to the exit door!
● You experience increased vaginal discharge: As labor approaches, you’ll notice that your vaginal discharge thickens and changes color. Your body produces more vaginal discharge to protect your baby from infection. The more discharge present, the more likely it is to wash away a pathogen. Near the end of pregnancy, as your body prepares for labor, some women experience more vaginal discharge in preparation for birth.
● You lose your mucus plug: The name leaves nothing to the imagination. Your mucus plug is exactly what it sounds like. This plug prevents pathogens from entering the uterus during pregnancy, but can fall out as your cervix dilates. If it falls out, it could mean your cervix is changing, but it doesn’t mean you’ll go into labor right away.
● You experience low back pain and cramping: As your joints loosen and expand thanks to the hormone relaxin, and as your baby moves lower into your pelvis, you can experience cramps and aches in your groin and lower back.
You might be curious about the stages of labor and how long each stage lasts.
Early Labor: 0 to 4 cm
● Early labor lasts around 8 to 12 hours.
● Contractions last about 30 to 45 seconds and occur every 5 to 30 minutes.
● Contractions are typically mild and somewhat irregular, but become progressively stronger and more frequent.
Active Labor: 5 to 10 cm
● Active labor lasts about 3-5 hours.
● This is usually the time to head to the hospital or birth center.
● Contractions during this phase will last about 45 to 60 seconds and occur every 3 to 5 minutes.
● Contractions will feel stronger and longer.
● Around 8 to 10 cm, you might experience something called “transitioning,” which is when your body is preparing to push. You might experience nausea, hot flashes, chills, or vomiting.
Stage 2: 10 cm to the birth of your baby
● Pushing can take minutes to a few hours.
● You can push using open glottis or closed glottis technique (although we recommend open glottis!)
Stage 3: The delivery of your placenta
● Takes 5 to 30 minutes.