The Stages of Labor

Worried about childbirth? Understanding what happens during the stages of labor and delivery can help you feel more in control during the birthing process.

In this article, you will find:

Stage one

The Stages of Labor

What is real labor like? Ask 50 women and you'll get 50 different stories. It's a unique, wonderful, terrifying, thrilling, difficult, easy, fast, unforgettable experience that will bring your baby into the world one way or another. Although no one can predict the details of your labor and delivery, the stages of delivery are the same for most women. Knowing where you are in the labor process should help you feel more in control and therefore less anxious during the birthing process.

During the first stage of labor, the tough cervix begins to soften and stretch to prepare to let the baby's head pass through during delivery. This is called effacement. As the first stage of labor continues, the cervix begins to dilate (about 1 to 1½ centimeters per hour). When the cervix dilates to 10 centimeters, delivery of the baby begins.

Stage One Labor

Hey Mom!

When a woman tells you she was in labor for 40 hours, you can bet she's counting from the earliest stages of labor—not hard labor. Don't let tales like this one worry you.

Daddy Alert!

Your job in the first stage of labor is to keep your partner (and yourself) calm. Try relaxation exercises and a massage. Play board games or go for a short walk together. Do whatever you have to do to stay calm and distract your partner. Encourage her to rest and store up the energy she'll need for what's ahead. If you can't stick around for too long (after all, this stage of labor can last for days), keep in constant touch and always be available when your partner says, "It's time!"

The first stage of labor brings you from the first twinge of a contraction to the serious business of getting ready for birth. This first stage can be long—up to three days sometimes. That's why it's important to know what's going on so you don't rush to the hospital or birthing center only to sit around for hours or be sent home because it's still too early.

In the very early stage you might not even know you're in labor. You might feel some menstrual-like cramps, or a bloated, constipated feeling, or a pain that starts in the back and moves across to your abdomen. Gradually the discomfort will grow into sharp pains that become more regular and intense.

During this early stage you might (or might not) have two signs of progressing labor:

  • You might pass the blood-tinged mucous plug that had been sealing off your cervix. This will come out of your vagina and will show on your underwear or in the toilet.
  • You might "break water." This refers to a rupture of the membranes of the amniotic sac. When this happens, amniotic fluid will leak from your vagina and make it look as if you have wet your pants. If this happens and you haven't begun labor contractions yet, this is a sign that you might begin within 24 to 48 hours. It is very important to keep the vaginal area very clean at this point, because the baby is now unprotected from germs. Do not take a bath, have sexual intercourse, or use a tampon to stop the flow.

This early stage of labor can last hours (or even days), so don't get too excited and do things that will get you tired out. It's not necessary at this point to do any breathing exercises, for example, and forget about putting the last touches on the baby's bedroom. The best thing to do is get some rest. You have a physically challenging job ahead of you—rest up.

If your early labor drags on, you're bound to get hungry, but watch what you eat. During labor, your stomach and intestines slow down, so you don't want to burden your sluggish digestive tract. Eat light foods that will give you energy. Toast, crackers with jelly or honey, hot cereal, or soup are all good choices. Above all, drink lots of water and juice to keep yourself from dehydrating.

The early stage of labor ends when contractions are about five minutes apart for an hour. Your doctor will tell you to let her know when your contractions reach a certain frequency and intensity. She'll also tell you not to worry too much about accidentally delivering your baby on the living room floor. Despite all the anxiety, most new mothers manage to arrive at their birthing place when it's not too soon and not too late. If you pay attention to your body, you will hear the body signals that say, "It's time to go!"