Labor is usually broken down into stages. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with these stages so you’ll know what’s going on and what to expect. This helps prevent fear or panic from taking over. So here are some tips on what to expect during each stage.
Stage One: Contractions and Dilation
During this first stage, you will experience regular contractions that are moderate in strength. They may feel like great pressure across your abdomen, or like an over-sized menstrual cramp or ache. It will usually subside in less than 30 seconds, and in 5 to 10 minutes, you will probably experience another contraction. They may be farther apart or closer together – the sign, say experts, that you’re really in labor is the strength and regularity of the contractions.
What’s going on is this: each contraction thins and opens the cervix (the opening between the mouth of the womb and the vagina) a little bit more. This is known as dilation. Your healthcare provider will measure the progress of the dilation with an internal exam, and once the cervix is fully dilated, the second stage can begin.
Stage Two: Transition
Somewhere between Stage One and Stage Two is a phase known as transition, and this usually marks the beginning of Stage Two. There may be an actual pause in contractions toward the end of transition, where the labor seems to “hang” for a moment. You may feel giddy or feel like crying and laughing at the same time. You may feel shaky. It’s an intense time, and your body kicks in with all kinds of “feel good” hormones and chemicals like endorphins. If you are having an unmedicated labor, transition is often when your labor takes on a dream-like state and you may not remember all of what happens afterward.
Stage Two labor involves stronger contractions that come closer together. Your cervix dilates rather rapidly, and your contractions require your full attention now. The contractions last around one minute each, which is much longer than the shorter contractions of Stage One labor. This stage usually lasts anywhere from 4 to 8 hours.
Stage Three: Descent
Sometimes, babies begin to descend during Stage Two. Otherwise, Stage Three is when the baby begins to descend into the birth canal. The stage has been set: the cervix is dilated to allow the baby’s head to come through; the contractions are strong and forceful; and now you will begin to feel the urge to push.
Interestingly, the contractions often back off a bit at this point, and there may be a longer resting time between each one. If you’ve had an epidural, you may not feel as much urge to push, and may need to be coached to pushed with each contraction. In a non-medicated labor, sometimes women are advised to hold off pushing if it’s early in labor that they get the urge, because it can cause exhaustion if pushing is begun too early.
Stage Three ends with the delivery of your baby. A normal birth starts with his or her head, then shoulders, then the rest of the body – and finally with the passing of the placenta. After your baby is born and you’re busy marveling at him or her, your uterus will contract again (you may not even notice). After a few minutes, the placenta separates from the uterine wall and, perhaps with a little push from you, passes out of the vagina. You will probably barely feel it!