Surprising Facts: The stages of labor
For first-time moms, labor takes an average of 15 hours, though it's not uncommon to last more than 20. (For women who've previously had a vaginal birth, it takes eight hours, on average.) The process of labor and birth is divided into three main stages. Here are the highlights on how childbirth progresses:
First stage The first stage begins when you start having contractions that progressively dilate and efface your cervix and it ends when your cervix is fully dilated. This stage is divided into two phases, early and active labor.
It can be tricky to determine exactly when early labor starts. That's because early labor contractions are sometimes hard to distinguish from the inefficient Braxton Hicks contractions that you may have been feeling for some time.
Unless there are complications or your midwife or doctor has advised you otherwise, expect to sit out most of your early labor at home. (Be sure, though, to check in with your caregiver to make certain.)
Early labor ends when your cervix is about 4 centimeters dilated and your progress starts to speed up. At this point, you enter what's known as the active phase of labor. Your contractions become more frequent, longer, and stronger.
The last part of the active phase — when your cervix dilates from 8 to 10 centimeters — is called the transition period because it marks the transition to the second stage of labor. This is the most intense part of the first stage, with contractions that are usually very strong, coming about every two and a half to three minutes and lasting a minute or more.
Second stage Once your cervix is fully dilated, the second stage of labor begins: the final descent and birth of your baby. This is the "pushing" stage of labor, and it can last anywhere from minutes to a few hours. (It's likely to be quicker if you've previously given birth vaginally.)
Your baby's head will continue to advance with each push until it "crowns" — the term used to describe the time when the widest part of your baby's head is finally visible. After your baby's head comes out, your midwife or doctor will suction his mouth and nose, and feel around his neck for the umbilical cord. His head then turns to the side as his shoulders rotate inside the pelvis to get into position for their exit. With the next contraction, you'll be coached to push as his shoulders deliver, one at a time, followed by the rest of his body.
You may feel a wide range of emotions now: euphoria, awe, pride, disbelief, excitement (to name a few), and, of course, intense relief that it's all over. Exhausted as you may be, you'll also probably feel a burst of energy, and any thoughts of sleep will vanish for the time being.
Stage three The final stage of labor begins immediately after the birth of your baby and ends with the delivery of your placenta. The contractions in the third stage are relatively mild.