What Are The Three Stages of Labor?

Updated: November 20, 2021
How will your labor progress? Find out everything you need to know about the different stages of labor, delivery and birth.
Stages of Labor
Table of contents

In this article, you will find:

The first stage of labor

If you are getting closer to the end of your pregnancy, you probably have labor and delivery on your mind. This is the last hurdle you will overcome to finally meet your new baby. So, what exactly goes on? If you are not a first-time parent, then this isn't your first rodeo.

Below we are going to discuss the 3 main stages of labor so you have a clearer picture of what to expect when the time comes. Don't worry, you can choose to have a birthing partner and a health care provider by your side every step of the way. Let's get started.

More: 5 Signs and Symptoms of Labor

The First Stage of Labor

The first stage of labor involves your cervix. You will hear the terms dilation and effacement, which are very important in this stage.

Dilation is the gradual opening of your cervix. It will need to reach 10cm to move on to the next stage. The cervix opens at the onset of labor.

Effacement is the thinning and shortening of the cervix, which allows for dilation to begin.

The first stage of labor is broken down into three phases. This will help you to assess how your labor progresses and give you an idea of where you are at in your labor.

Early Labor

Early labor or the "latent phase" is the first phase you will go through and is typically the longest. The cervix usually dilates to somewhere around 3cm or more during this time. Most of the time you will begin to feel contractions which are letting you know that the cervix is preparing for birth. Many moms experience Braxton Hicks contractions which do not cause cervical dilation. This is why you will sometimes hear them referred to as "false labor."

It is important to not rush to your birth center or hospital as soon as you start feeling contractions. Your health care provider or doula will have you start to time them to look for a pattern to see if they are becoming more regular and close together. Until then, sit tight and stay home unless you have concerns.

Active Labor

This is one of the shorter phases of the first stage. The cervix is continuing to contract or dilate during this time. When the cervix reaches around 7 cm, that is typically when this stage switches to the final phase.

During active labor is where you will also usually see your water break which is medically known as the rupture of your membranes. This "burst" of the amniotic sac can happen naturally or can be done by your doctor. An artificial membrane rupture isn't always necessary and that will be determined by the health care provider. It feels like a gush, which is normal, this is just the amniotic fluid releasing for the baby to make its way down.

Transitional Labor

During the transition, your body is preparing itself for delivery. The cervix will dilate to the full 10 cm that is required to start pushing. This happens with contractions. These are what you feel during labor that causes pain and discomfort.

What do contractions feel like?

Uterine contractions feel different to every woman. Many will describe it as pressure that they only feel during the contraction, and then it stops in between during a brief resting period. The pressure can feel like tightening or the urge to push. It is important not to start pushing until the cervix is fully dilated to 10 cm.

What can your support partner do?

The best thing that your partner can do for you during this time is to just be there. They can help you discuss pain management such as an epidural, rub your back, breathe with you, and even bring you ice. It may not seem like much but not being alone can feel extremely helpful during this time.

What can you do to feel more comfortable?

Playing the waiting game is never fun, especially when you are both uncomfortable but also anxious to meet your little one. Below you will find a couple of relaxation techniques that you can try to help you during early labor.

  • Go for a walk
  • Change positions
  • Take a relaxing bath or a warm shower
  • Meditate
  • Practice breathing techniques with your partner

The Second Stage of Labor

This is the stage where you will ultimately meet your baby. Below are a few things to expect before they are born.

Assessing your baby during labor

During labor, your doctor will be performing vaginal examinations to check the dilation and effacement of your cervix. As mentioned earlier, you must be 10 cm dilated and 100% effaced before you can start pushing. Once you are there, that is when the second stage begins. These checks are considered medical interventions and are necessary to guarantee the safe delivery of your baby.

The Birth of Your Baby

Your doctor will let you know when it is time to start pushing. The time it takes for the baby to descend the birth canal varies from just a few minutes to even a few hours. This will happen during one of the contractions. You will be asked to bear down while pushing. The best way to describe this action is to treat it as a bowel movement. During this time you can choose to change positions to find what feels best for you. Not all women give birth lying on their back so it is fine to ask to move around if you need to.

It is crucial to stay as focused and calm as you can. This helps your blood pressure stay normal and it gives the tissue in your vagina time to stretch to minimize tearing. Don't worry if you do experience any tearing. It is completely normal and will heal within the first few weeks of your postpartum recovery.

Babies are born head down. If your baby is flipped and their feet are first, this is called "breech." Many doctors catch this during an ultrasound before labor and there are tips you can use to encourage your baby to turn head down. Once your baby's head is delivered, the rest of their body follows quickly.

Umbilical Cord and Skin-to-Skin

Umbilical Cord

After your baby is delivered, your health care provider will make sure there aren't any immediate concerns that need to be addressed before giving the baby to you. Then the umbilical cord will be cut usually by the doctor or your partner if they wish to do so.

As long as they are breathing normally, you will get the chance to have skin-to-skin contact with your baby moments after birth. Studies show that this is a crucial bonding moment for you and your child. It also causes the mother's brain to release oxytocin which is also known as the "love hormone" and has various health benefits as well that help with recovery after birth. The same goes for breastfeeding as well.

The Third Stage of Labor

You may think that once your baby is born that labor is over. However, this isn't the case. The final stage of labor is usually fairly quick, but it is just as important as the rest of the stages.

Delivery of the Placenta

The placenta is the sac that was giving your baby the nutrients it needed to grow and thrive in the womb. It is also often referred to as the "afterbirth." The uterus continues to contract during this time. It's fairly easy and short and requires almost no work on your part. Most of the time, it takes no more than 15 minutes.

A subject that many mothers have different opinions on is the consumption of the placenta. This is your choice. Here is a great read from a labor and delivery expert on this subject.

More Frequently Asked Questions From Expecting Mothers:

What is a "bloody show?"

Bloody show is also known as the mucus plug. It is a form of vaginal discharge that looks like tinged pink mucus. Some women pass this before labor, and it can also be an indication that labor is beginning. If you are experiencing any bleeding during your pregnancy, make sure you contact your doctor.

Do I have to get an epidural?

This is an optional form of pain medication administered into your spine in your lower back that your doctor may offer you. The pain relief it provides makes some women more comfortable and gives them the chance to rest before birth. It is up to you if you would like to get an epidural.

What is an episiotomy?

Sometimes the vagina doesn't stretch enough during delivery and your doctor needs to make an incision of the perineum so your baby can arrive safely.

Will I need a C-section?

Most cesarean sections or C-sections are an emergency medical intervention if you can not have a safe vaginal delivery. However, some mothers are opting for cesarean delivery instead as a choice. Talk to your doctor about birthing options that would be best for you.

When does crowning occur?

Crowning is when the baby's head is visible through the vaginal opening. It is an indicator that the baby is on its way down the birth canal. This usually happens during the active phase of labor in the second stage.

Will my baby come on their due date?

The due date is an estimation of your newborn's arrival. This is determined by the date of your last period before you became pregnant or by the doctor's measurements, but it is never exact. 37 weeks is considered a full-term pregnancy and some women even go beyond 40 weeks.

If you are feeling overwhelmed you are not alone. Many mothers are anxious and scared before giving birth, and that's not just first-time moms. Even ones who have given birth in the past have some fear. This is because every experience is different. Labor and delivery are never the same. For a trusted opinion, here is a great resource with labor tips and information from Dr. Jenny Keller, who is the director of the residency program in Obstetrics and Gynecology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Being prepared for what to expect during labor will help expecting moms feel more at ease before your newborn makes its arrival. For more information on the signs and stages of labor, see our article on: When You Should Go to the Hospital before giving birth.