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Categories > Pregnancy and Childbirth > Childbirth: What to expect

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What will labor & delivery be like?

» The first stage: labor

» Early labor

» Active labor

» Transition

» The second stage: delivery

» Third stage: delivery of the placenta


Early Labor Cervix dilates 3 to 4 centimeters; membranes may rupture; contractions mild; may have backache, cramps, indigestion, diarrhea.

Active Labor Cervix continues to dilate; contractions stronger; backache, leg discomfort, fatigue more severe; breathing exercises start.

Transition Most tiring phase; hard to relax or concentrate; severe lower backache, rectal pressure, irritability; chills, nausea, vomiting, leg cramps.

Delivery Contractions (more regular now) cause intense rectal pressure and overwhelming urge to push. As a combination of contractions and pushing force baby through birth canal, you may feel a stinging sensation.

Delivery Of Placenta Mild uterine contractions cause placenta to be expelled; you may feel exhausted and may have chills; if you had an episiotomy, you may feel impatient waiting for stitches; overall exhilaration at sight of baby.

That’s a burning question for most first-time moms-to-be. Although the process of giving birth is different for every woman and for every baby, knowing what to expect will leave you better prepared to handle labor and delivery.

This article outlines the three stages of labor, describing what your body will be doing, how long the stage usually lasts, what the contractions might be like and what you might be feeling at this memorable time in your life.

The first stage: labor

When labor begins, the cervix is about half an inch long and almost closed. During labor, the cervix thins (effaces), merging with the walls of the uterus, and opens (dilates) to 10 centimeters in diameter (4 inches).

Labor itself is divided into three phases: early labor, active labor and transition.

Early labor

What’s my body doing? In early (latent) labor, the cervix dilates 3 to 4 centimeters. In addition, if it hasn’t happened already, the mucus plug that protects the opening of the cervix is expelled. If your membranes didn’t rupture before labor (they don’t for 90 percent of women), they may rupture any time now. (If they don’t rupture on their own, your obstetrician may puncture the membranes.)

How long does it last? Early labor may be as short as two hours or more than 24, with an average of 12 hours for first-time moms.

What are the contractions like? The contractions of early labor are usually mild; often, they’re similar in intensity to menstrual cramps. Some women don’t even feel these early contractions. They may be irregular, lasting 30 to 45 seconds each and occurring every five to 20 minutes. They become progressively closer but don’t necessarily follow a consistent pattern.

What might I feel? You might have a backache, cramps, indigestion or diarrhea. You may feel excited and talkative or nervous.

Active labor

What’s my body doing? During this phase, the cervix dilates to 8 centimeters. How long does it last? This stage of labor typically lasts two to three-and-a-half hours, but can vary greatly.

What are the contractions like? Stronger now, contractions last 40 to 60 seconds each and occur every three to four minutes (the pattern may still not be regular). They eventually become more rhythmic, peaking and receding in a regular pattern, and you may find that there’s less time to rest between contractions.

What might I feel? At this time, you might feel a backache, leg discomfort and fatigue, all of which gradually grow in intensity. The increasing discomfort caused by the contractions may make you restless—or it may spur you to double your concentration. Breathing exercises should be started when contractions become too strong for you to talk through.


What’s my body doing? The cervix dilates from 8 to 10 centimeters during transition. This is generally the most demanding and tiring phase of labor—but it’s also usually relatively quick.

How long does it last? It may take as little as 20 minutes, and even if it goes beyond that, transition rarely lasts more than an hour.

What are the contractions like? The intensity of contractions is very strong now. They last 50 to 90 seconds and occur every two to three minutes.

What might I feel? During transition, you might feel overwhelmed by the contractions and find it difficult—if not impossible—to relax or concentrate. Severe lower backache, rectal pressure, fatigue and irritability are common. You may experience chills, nausea, vomiting, leg cramps and shaking.

The second stage: delivery

What’s my body doing? Now that the cervix offers no resistance, the combination of pushing and contractions will force the baby down—and, ultimately, out of—the birth canal.

How long does it last? Typically about an hour, but it may last two hours or more, especially for first-time moms.

What are the contractions like? The contractions in this stage are still 60 to 90 seconds long, but they’re more regular and may occur a little less frequently (two to five minutes apart).

What might I feel? During delivery, you might feel intense rectal pressure and an overwhelming urge to push. If this stage is prolonged, you may feel as though you just want to “get this over with once and for all!” But hold out a little longer—the end is in sight. You may notice a stinging sensation when the head crowns and a wet, slippery feeling as the baby is born.

Third stage: delivery of the placenta

What’s my body doing? During this final stage of labor, your uterus contracts to expel the placenta (afterbirth).

How long does it last? About half an hour.

What are the contractions like? They’re mild (you may not even feel them), lasting about 60 seconds each.

What might I feel? By this time, you’ll probably feel exhausted and may experience chills. If you are torn or had an episiotomy, you may grow impatient about having to lie still for the stitches. Excited by your tremendous accomplishment, you may also feel exhilarated at the sight of your beautiful new baby. Now’s the time for you, your coach and your healthcare team to pat yourselves on the back for a job well done!

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