There are three stages of labor: cervix dilation, birth, and placenta delivery. Each stage has its own set of symptoms, estimated timelines, and coping strategies. We’ve outlined what to expect in each of the three stages of labor so you can approach your due date feeling confident and prepared for what’s to come.
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The Three Stages of Labor: What to Expect

The Three Stages of Labor: What to Expect

mom holding newborn baby in hospital

For soon-to-be mamas, approaching your due date can cause a mixture of emotions, including excitement, uncertainty, anxiousness, and fear. Every woman’s experience is unique, but it can help to know what to expect throughout labor and delivery to mentally and emotionally prepare for the big day.

There are three stages of labor: cervix dilation, birth, and placenta delivery. Each stage has its own set of symptoms, estimated timelines, and coping strategies. We’ve outlined what to expect in each of the three stages of labor so you can approach your due date feeling confident and prepared for what’s to come.

Stage One: Your Cervix Dilates to 10 centimeters

The first stage of labor is the longest. This is when your cervix will open to 10 centimeters dilated. This stage of labor can take anywhere from six to 36 hours. Keep in mind that this stage of labor can take longer for first-time moms.

In general, the first stage of labor is characterized by the perception of contractions, your water breaking, and contractions. However, because this is the longest stage of labor, it’s broken up into three phases of progress: early, active, and transitional.

Early Labor

During early labor, your cervix will dilate up to 4-6 centimeters. You will experience mild, irregular contractions that feel similar to period cramps. You may notice a thick, stringy discharge of your mucus plug, which can happen up to 2 weeks week before labor. Early labor can last several hours to several days and tends to take longer for first-time moms.

Symptoms:

  • Mild, irregular contractions that feel similar to period cramps
  • Discharge from your mucus plug
  • Clear or pale yellow fluid in a sudden gush or steady stream as your water breaks

What You Can Do:

  • Relax as much as possible
  • Go for a walk
  • Take a warm shower or bath
  • Practice breathing techniques

Before you go into labor, talk to your doctor about when you should leave for your labor and delivery facility. Many women choose to stay home during early labor, but you should leave for your labor and delivery facility immediately if your water breaks or you experience significant vaginal bleeding.

Active Labor

During active labor, your cervix will dilate from 6 centimeters up to 10 centimeters. This is when your contractions will get stronger, closer together, and more regular. You may experience significant cramping, nausea, and back pain. Active labor typically lasts four to eight hours or more. On average, the cervix dilates 1-2 centimeter each hour, depending on if you are a first time mom or if you have had children before. .

Symptoms:

  • Intense contractions
  • Cramping
  • Nausea
  • Back pain

What you can do:

  • Go to your labor and delivery facility if you haven’t already
  • Ask for pain medication or anesthesia
  • Change positions
  • Practice breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Roll on a birthing ball
  • Take a warm shower or bath
  • Walk, stopping to breathe through contractions
  • Rely on your medical team and birth partner for support
  • Ask your support partner to gently massage your back or abdomen between contractions

Transition

The final phase of the first stage of labor is the most intense. The transition typically lasts between 15-60 minutes and is characterized by intense contractions lasting 60-90 seconds. Women often experience pressure in the lower back and rectum and may feel the urge to push. Tell your healthcare team if you feel the need to push. They will direct you to wait or tell you when it’s time to enter the second stage of labor: giving birth to your baby.

Symptoms:

  • Intense contractions lasting 60-90 seconds
  • Pressure in the lower back and rectum
  • Urge to push

What you can do:

  • Practice breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Rely on your medical team and birth partner for support
  • Communicate with your healthcare team if you feel the urge to push

Stage Two: Your Baby is Born

When your cervix is fully dilated to 10 centimeters, it’s time to deliver your baby. Your healthcare team will tell you when it’s time to push. It can take up to a few hours to push your baby out.

Symptoms:

  • Intense pressure, similar to an urge to have a bowel movement
  • Strong contractions

What you can do:

  • If you don’t have an epidural, you can change positions between squatting, sitting, kneeling, or on your hands and knees
  • Listen to your healthcare team on when to push and when to rest
  • Ask to feel the baby’s head or see the baby’s head in a mirror to help you stay motivated

Immediately after your baby is delivered, your healthcare team may clear your baby’s airway and place your baby on your chest. Your healthcare team or support partner will cut the umbilical cord, and your doctor may encourage you to try breastfeeding for the first time.

Stage Three: The Placenta is Delivered

Following your baby’s birth, your uterus will continue to contract to deliver your placenta. This is the final stage and typically takes five to 15 minutes. Many mothers feel a rush of relief and emotions when meeting their new baby for the first time. You may not be aware of what is happening around you at this point.

Symptoms:

  • Mild contractions
  • Rush of relief and emotions

What you can do:

  • Relax and focus on your baby
  • You may try breastfeeding for the first time
  • Push when your healthcare team instructs you to

Your doctor will deliver and examine your placenta. They may need to clean remaining fragments from the uterus. You will continue to have mild contractions as your uterus begins to shrink down. A healthcare provider will massage your abdomen and determine whether you need any stitches or repairs to your vaginal area.

At Walnut Hill OBGYN, we provide the best care for Dallas moms to be, from prenatal to postpartum. To meet with one of our doctors about growing your family, give us a call today.