Updated on May 22nd, 2021 // by Katie Griffin
Many people, even going into pregnancy, have only a general idea of what labor looks like. You may picture it as a screaming woman, holding her abdomen. And there comes a time in labor when that picture may be accurate. But labor actually progresses through multiple stages, and each brings different feelings and different things happening in the body. Labor and birth can be separated into three main stages, which can then be broken down into a few different phases. So what are the three stages of labor? Let’s take a look!
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Table of contents
Before we can talk about what are the three stages of labor, we first need to touch upon prelabor. Have you ever heard a woman describe the on-and-off contractions that she had for days before her baby was born? That was likely prelabor.
Prelabor occurs before true labor begins. It’s a time marked by non-progressing contractions — ones that don’t bring about dilation of the cervix. For most women, they’re noticeable but not painful. Prelabor contractions, also known as Braxton-Hicks contractions, can last for a few hours or a few days. Although the cervix isn’t dilating, it is beginning to ripen, efface, and move forward.
Stage 1 of Labor
During the first stage of labor, baby is still safe and snug in your uterus. You’re having true labor contractions — ones that bring about effacement and dilation of the cervix. Your main goal in this stage of labor is to stay as relaxed as possible during your contractions as you allow your body to do the work of effacing and dilating. When the first stage of labor ends, your cervix is 10 cm dilated and you’re ready to start pushing.
Stage 1 can be broken down into 3 different phases:
1st Phase: Early Labor
In early labor, the cervix dilates from 0 up to 6 cm. Contractions begin as mild and far apart, and gradually get closer together and more noticeable. It’s the longest phase of labor and averages about 9-11 hours for a first-time mom. Many women find early labor to be very manageable, especially in the early stages. You may be talkative and upbeat. For a time, you may be able to distract yourself from the contractions with activities like shopping, baking, or watching a movie.
2nd Phase: Active Labor
During active labor, contractions start to pick up in pace and intensity. They come every 5 minutes or less, lasting for at least a minute each. These longer, stronger contractions help to dilate the cervix from 6-8 cm. Active labor lasts about 4.5 hours for a first-time mom. Women start to be less talkative and more focused now, and often begin to use coping tools like movement and slow breathing techniques.
3rd Phase: Transition
Transition is where labor really starts to get serious! Mom is working hard now to stay relaxed and focused on maintaining her labor rhythm. The contractions have continued to increase in frequency, duration, and intensity. They come every 1.5 – 2 minutes now, lasting up to 1.5 minutes long each. The cervix is doing it’s final push, dilating from 8 and all the way up to 10cm. Transition typically lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. You will likely be rocking or swaying with your contractions, and it’s also very common to moan and use more rapid breathing techniques now.
Stage 2 of Labor
Stage 2 of labor is most commonly known as the “pushing stage.” It picks up where transition left off. Now mom’s cervix is 10 cm dilated. Baby is starting to leave the uterus and enter the birth canal. Contractions are coming every 2-3 minutes and lasting 60-90 seconds. But something has changed. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you will begin to feel the urge to push with your contraction! Follow that urge and push as your body directs. You might grunt and gently work the baby down, or you may feel the desire to hold your breath and bear down. Within 1-3 hours, baby will be born!
Stage 3 of Labor
When we discuss what are the 3 stages of labor, nobody thinks too much about the lowly third stage. Baby’s already been born and stolen the show! But labor isn’t over quite yet 🙂
Stage 3 begins with the birth of the baby and ends with the separation of the placenta. This will typically happen within 15-20 minutes in a hospital setting, although it may take longer. Your uterus will be still be contracting mildly, and those contractions eventually cause the placenta to detach from the uterus. With some gentle traction on the umbilical cord from your doctor or midwife and a few gentle pushes from you, the placenta will come sliding out. And once the placenta has separated, birth is officially over! Congratulations!!
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