Stages of Labor: Childbirth Primer

pregnant woman stretching on exercise ball

Signs of labor can vary from person to person, but all women with the exception of cesarean sections will go through four stages of labor.

When you reach your third trimester, you will want to familiarize yourself with the signs of labor including bloody show, lower back pain, cramps, and contractions. It will also be helpful to have an understanding of the different stages of labor. Understanding the physical (and emotional) process of labor will help you to better cope with the pains of labor.

First Stage of Labor

The first stage of labor begins with the onset of labor until the cervix is completely dilated to 10 centimeters. The first stage of labor averages 10 to 12 hours for first-time moms and 6 to 8 hours for moms who have given birth before. The first stage of labor can be divided further into phases: the latent phase, the active phase, and the transition phase.

husband holding pregnant wife's hand during labor

Latent Phase

The latent phase of the first stage of labor describes the period of early labor when a woman first begins to dilate. The contractions are usually mild, starting at 5 to 10 minutes apart and gradually increasing in strength, duration, and frequency. The latent phase of labor lasts around eight hours for first time moms and can be considerably shorter in moms who have given birth before. During the latent phase, your cervix will begin to dilate and efface. At the end of the latent phase, you will reach 3 to 4 centimeters. You may feel excited and anxious.

Active Phase

During the active phase of labor, contractions will intensify in pain, become closer together, and last for longer periods of time. You may be more anxious during this phase and a good support coach may help keep you feeling in control. This is likely the time you will be administered pain medication if desired. During the active phase of labor, contractions will be about 2 to 3 minutes apart and last anywhere from 40 to 60 seconds. By the end of the active phase of labor, contractions will be very strong, and your cervix should be dilated to around 7 centimeters.

pregnant mom in labor

Transition Phase

The final phase of the first stage of labor is the transition phase. You will begin transition at seven centimeters, and it ends when your cervix is fully dilated at ten centimeters. The transition phase is very intense. Contractions come about every 1 1/2 to 2 minutes and will last 60 to 90 seconds. The contractions may feel as they are coming one on top of the other and you may feel anxious and panicked. Fast short breaths may help you to stay calm or you may be unable to stay calm at all. Towards the end of the transition phase, you may feel the urge to bear down or an urge to have a bowel movement. The transition phase averages 1 to 3 hours and can be shorter for moms who have given birth before.

Second Stage of Labor

The second stage of labor begins when you are fully dilated and ends with the birth of your baby. The second stage of labor should be less than 2 hours for the first time mom and less than 1 hour for moms who have given birth before. This is when the pushing part of labor begins. You will bear down using the same muscles as you use to have a bowel movement. As the baby descends, his head will begin to crown. Crowning is often accompanied by a sense of relief as labor is almost over and birth imminent. Once crowning occurs usually only a few more pushes are needed to deliver your baby.

Third Stage of Labor

The third stage of labor is the delivery of the placenta. Within minutes, after the birth of your baby, the placenta will begin to show signs of separation. Once signs of separation occur, your doctor or midwife will encourage you to push again to expel the placenta. She may pull gently on the cord to help you to expel it.

Fourth Stage of Labor

Some sources also recognize a fourth stage of labor. The fourth stage of labor begins after the placenta is expelled and continues during the recovery phase after birth. The fourth stage of labor refers to the 3 to 4 hours after birth when your uterus begins to contract back in place and your body returns to normal.