I’ve talked about my birth story with my eldest before. And when you speak to any woman about hers, no two are ever alike, even if the same woman is telling you about her different pregnancies.
It still amazes me to know that no one can predict the precise moment you’ll go into labor. Yet there are signs labor is approaching, so you may have a slight inkling it’s about that time.
Labor actually happens in 4 stages, so let’s talk about that first so you can know the signs labor is approaching for you.
Labor’s 4 Stages
The stages of labor are as follows:
I’m going to discuss each of these in more detail below.
Stage 1 of Labor
This is the dilation stage. Your cervix will begin to thin and open up because of those hormones your body releases in labor. This stage technically begins when your contractions start and continue until your cervix dilates fully.
A fully-dilated cervix is at 10 centimeters. This is the width it needs to be to deliver your baby vaginally. Of course, how dilated you are down there will not matter if you have a c-section.
But due to dilation problems, you may be in labor for hours and hours and HOURS. Be prepared for that, as well as the possibility that you may need to have a c-section if things don’t progress as they should.
That’s not all there is to know about the dilation stage. It is the longest one and is often described in 3 distinct phases.
- The early phase
Also known as the latent phase, this portion of the first stage of labor can last as much as 20 hours, particularly for those of you that are new mamas. Typically, contractions will start coming every 5 to 20 minutes. Each will last for 30 to 60 seconds. The contractions won’t be so bad here, making you think you can totally handle this. Easy-peasy.
That’s because these contractions in this latent phase are more irregular, mild, and shorter. But as your labor progresses, you’ll soon see that change. If you’re in this phase, make sure you’re timing your contractions. You need to be at the hospital when they’re coming every 5 minutes.
And while you’ll feel all sorts of bizarre, your cervix will only open to about 3 cm at this point. The more it extends, the more you may see the bloody show from that mucus plug.
Here’s the list of some unusual signs of labor.
Your water may gush out or drip out as well. Usually, this is not a huge deal, but if you have that water burst out or there’s lots of vaginal bleeding, you need to get to the hospital no matter how far apart your contractions are.
- Active phase
Once your cervix has hit that 3-cm mark, your active phase is in action. So you’ll have stronger, more regular, and far more painful contractions about every 3 minutes. It’s exhausting.
Now your cervix will start dilating faster, or at least it should. It should open to about 8 cm, all the while your baby’s head will move further down into your pelvis. If your water hasn’t broken yet, it likely will now, and you’ll feel some pressure in your lower back area.
- Transitional phase
Here’s the point of the first stage of labor, where your cervix will open to 8 to 10 cm, allowing room for the baby to come out vaginally. Oh, the pain here is so not fun! Contractions will happen every 2 to 3 minutes, and you’ll need to endure them for about a minute or a more each, giving you like zero time to relax between them.
Your legs might cramp up, and you may shake, feel nauseated, or even throw up. Lord knows I barfed at this point. Robustly.
If you want an epidural or any pain medication, now is the time they’ll administer it, much to your great relief. Meanwhile, your baby’s head will move further down into your pelvis and what I can say about this is it hurts, so if you opt for pain medication, you will most certainly be relieved when it kicks in.
Your birth canal will be ready at this point as the womb is open, and the cervix and vagina are ready to get that baby out of there.
You might need to know some emotional signs that the labor is approaching.
Stage 2 of Labor
Congratulations! It’s time for delivery when your cervix has fully opened up to 10 cm. This stage ends, of course, once the baby comes out. But so much can vary here so that it may be 20 minutes or 2 hours. First-time moms notoriously take longer, but not always. And yes, if you have an epidural, it may prolong the delivery stage.
What will happen now? You’ll still be having those contractions, and they will be strong. Every minute to 3 minutes, they will come and last for 45 seconds to 75 seconds each.
At this point, your doctor might be asking you to push. With each contraction, give a push, and it will help move your baby further down into your pelvis and into that birth canal.
At the end of this stage, crowning will commence. This is when the top of the baby’s head appears in your vaginal opening. It will stretch things out, and you may or may not need an episiotomy (when they stitch up the rip) from this whole ordeal.
While this is different for everyone, listen to what your doctor says. If they tell you to push, then push. Though they may ask you to stop to keep from tearing your perineal area so they can help slowly ease your baby’s head out.
Once the head comes out, the shoulders and everything else will follow. The delivery team will help clear the baby’s airway so he or she can take their first breath in the outside world. They will then clamp the umbilical cord and cut it.
Stage 3 of Labor
If you’ve delivered vaginally, you will soon need to push that placenta out. Those who have a c-section will have this removed in your surgery.
This third stage of labor will happen 5 to 30 minutes after your baby is born. So just as you’re starting to feel relief, you’ll get contractions again to push the placenta away from the uterine walls. Your doctor might ask you to give a push or two during this time to help it come out.
When it does, they’ll take a look to make sure it’s intact. If there are any lingering pieces from it, they will remove them to keep you from bleeding and having an infection.
Meanwhile, your uterus will continue to contract to get back down to size. You may be given meds to help you with this, and if you need any stitching, you might get local anesthesia while the doctor stitches you up.
Stage 4 of Labor
Now you’ll be in the recovery period, defined as the first 2 or 3 hours after you deliver. Your uterus will contract during this time, and it can be sped up if you breastfeed.
When breastfeeding, it stimulates the production of oxytocin. As such, you may shake or feel chills. You may also feel great discomfort, weakness, and dizziness. It might be hard to go pee at this point, too, something I didn’t get to experience because of the c-section. They give you a catheter you may come to love since you no longer have to get up to pee every 5 minutes.
At this point, though, the best thing you can do in this stage of labor starts breastfeeding to help your body recover. And doing it, skin-to-skin will enhance the bond with your baby and help them get the best latch.
While predicting labor seems impossible, once you know what to expect from the 4 stages of labor, it’s a lot less frightening as you move through them.
Leslie Berry lives with her husband and two young daughters in Los Altos, California where she loves helping other moms get comfortable with motherhood and embracing the insanity with facts peppered with laughs. She loves eating too much sushi, exercise, and jamming out on her Fender.