If you’re pregnant and approaching your due date – especially if this is your first pregnancy – then it’s only natural that you may have some questions and concerns as to what you can expect the labor process to be like. Every pregnancy is different from every other, even if we’re talking about two pregnancies for the same mother, but labor still follows a typical, four-stage sequence of events that you can prepare for.
Stage One: Early Labor
Early labor is the very beginning of the process during which your cervix first begins to dilate and efface (thin out to facilitate the labor process). You will feel some regular contractions at this point, but it will still most likely be a while before they are terribly strong or close together. In fact, some women can be in early labor for a matter of hours or even days without actually realizing it. Some women also notice the passing of what is known as a bloody show, the cervix’s mucus plug.
During this stage of labor, you can continue going about your daily activities for the most part. Some women like to do some light chores, take a nap, have a light snack, or watch a movie.
Stage Two: Active Labor
Active labor is the stage of labor during which things become more work. Your cervix will continue to dilate until it reaches 10 centimeters. Your contractions will also continue to increase in intensity and grow closer together. Many women also begin to feel a sense of pressure in their lower back area or pelvis. Once you’re in active labor, it’s time to head to the hospital, call your midwife or travel to your alternative birthing facility. Make sure you have your hospital bag packed and ready to go with important items like baby’s clothes, a change of clothes for you, and a maternity hospital gown if you like.
Active labor typically lasts around 8 hours or so for first-time mothers. Women who have been through a pregnancy, labor, and vaginal delivery before may find that it’s much shorter. You may decide you need pain meds at this point or – at the very least – the support of your labor coach. The end of active labor is known as transition and can be quite intense.
Stage Three: The Pushing Stage
Once you’re fully dilated and effaced, your baby will begin to move out of the uterus and into the birth canal. It ends with the actual birth of your baby into the world, so you won’t have much longer to go once you reach this stage. Your doctor or midwife may encourage you to push with each contraction in order to help speed the process up. Sometimes things are allowed to simply take their natural course, with the mother pushing once she begins to feel the urge.
At the point where your baby’s head is delivered, your health care provider will clear his or her airway and check to see that the umbilical cord is free. Then the baby’s body will be delivered, which generally comes along much more easily than the head does.
Stage Four: Delivery of the Placenta
The last stage of labor involves the delivery of the placenta and other afterbirth tissue. It’s definitely the easiest stage of labor and is often painless (or nearly so). The placenta will typically detach and exit the body by itself within 5-15 minutes. However, sometimes the placenta can take up to 30 minutes. Your health care provider may gently massage your uterus in order to encourage it to contract and expel this tissue. You will also be checked to make sure your bleeding is within normal, health levels.
While it’s understandable that you may be nervous about going through labor and childbirth, the process will be easier to approach now that you know what to expect.