Inside: Understanding the stages of labor from beginning to end
When you think about labor you may be thinking, there’s contractions and you push your baby out. This is true but there’s more to it.
There are actually three stages of labor, which I’ll go into detail about what each stage is a little later.
So why does it matter that there are three stages of labor? How does it benefit you to know about them?
Actually it’s very helpful for you to know what’s happening to your body during each stage because it helps you prepare your mind and body ahead of time.
Preparing your mind and body means you will eliminate fear, (thus decreasing pain) help yourself labor without medical intervention, (if that’s your goal), and it can help you birth your baby more quickly!
So what are the 3 stages of labor?
The first stage is when you are experiencing contractions and your cervix is dilating from 0-10 centimeters.
What is happening to your body:
- Your cervix is thinning
- Your baby is descending
- Your contractions are getting stronger and closer together
- You may feel nauseous
- You may feel a lot of pressure, (like you have to poop but it’s actually the pressure of your baby!)
- You may go between feeling hot and cold
What you should be doing:
- Using your relaxation techniques
- Relaxing during contractions
- Focus on deep breathing
Stage one is usually the longest part of labor for most women.
There are three parts within the first stage of labor and those are early labor, active labor, and transition.
Early labor is considered 0-4 centimeters dilated.
Active labor is considered 5-7 centimeters dilated.
Transition is 8-10 centimeters dilated.
Transition is usually the most challenging part of this stage, (I know it was for me!).
This is because your contractions are very intense and very close together, (meaning there is little time for recovery in between).
But this is a good sign!! This means your baby is nearly here! At the end of the transition phase, you will be gearing up to push!
I remember when I was in the transition phase with my first baby, I thought to myself there is no way I can continue to ride out these contractions because I just wasn’t getting a break! My contractions were so intense and so long, and right on top of each other.
I honestly don’t know how long that phase was for me, but I do remember very specifically what helped was thinking, just get through this contraction.
I wasn’t thinking about anything else except making it through one contraction at a time.
With that as my motivation, I was able to power through that intense pain and get to the next stage of labor without medical intervention, (which was my end goal).
Speaking of goals, it’s very important for you to know what your personal goals are for your labor and delivery and to share them with your partner and/or doula!
The most effective way to do this is by writing a birth plan.
Psst! You can get your free birth plan template by signing up below!
You can give your birth plan to your partner, doula, and healthcare provider so everyone knows what you want, (or don’t want!).
For example if you don’t want any medical interventions or you only want certain medical interventions, let them know!
When you are nearing the end of the first stage of labor it can be hard for you to communicate to your healthcare provider, (or with anyone really!) because you’re busy breathing, relaxing, and making it through each contraction.
This is when it’s helpful for your partner and/or doula to know your wishes because they can communicate for you.
They can also use the information on your birth plan to support your end goal.
For example, my end goal was to have an intervention free, natural childbirth. So my partner and doula used tools, (like supportive/encouraging words, massage, heat/cold packs, etc.) to help me make it through each contraction.
This is the pushing process and ends with the birth of your baby!
What’s happening to your body
- You feel an overwhelming urge to push, (you can’t stop it)
- The baby is descending with each contraction
- There is a ring of fire as the baby crowns
What you should do
- Push during contractions
- Rest and relax between contractions
- Find the most comfortable position
- Stay hydrated and cool (with your partner or doula’s help)
- Follow your body’s instincts
When you get to 10 centimeters dilated you will feel the urge to push, (this feeling is involuntary).
I remember during my first labor, I didn’t actually know what the sensation to push would feel like! It felt like my stomach/insides were heaving without me doing anything!
I don’t clearly remember how I figured out what was happening, I think I asked my doula why I was feeling that way and she told me my body was pushing. (Things were a bit hazy because I was focused on my one job, which was to push the baby out!)
To productively push it’s better to listen to your body rather than be coached to push. This way you can push when you’re body tells you to, and rest in between.
Something else I learned in my personal experience was pushing when I was coached to, had way less results than pushing at the same time my body was involuntarily pushing!
This stage can require patience for everyone because although the second stage is usually faster than the first one, it can still take some time to bring the baby down.
It’s normal for pushing to last 1-3 hours for first time moms. For repeat moms it’s usually less time.
With my first baby I pushed for an hour and with my second I only pushed for 15 minutes!
Read here for more on how to prevent tearing during childbirth.
You’ll know birth is imminent when your baby’s head remains visible between contractions, (something your partner, midwife, doula, or doctor can tell you!).
Do’s and Don’ts for Stage 2
One very important point to note is that you need to stay hydrated during labor. Hydrating helps you from becoming dehydrated, (obviously) which dehydration among other detrimental things, can make your labor longer. (Source)
However, this can be really hard for you because you’re concentrating so hard on getting through your contractions or you just don’t want to eat or drink anything.
My doula and partner had to pretty much force me to drink something because I just didn’t want anything. But that was helpful for me because I knew why it was important for me to be hydrated during labor, but I wouldn’t have done it myself.
You also want to make sure that when you push, you aren’t holding your breath to the count of 10, (which many moms are encouraged to do).
This can deprive you and your baby of oxygen and it can be exhausting.
Instead of holding your breath to the count of 10 you can:
- Hold your breath until it’s comfortable
- Make a vocalization during pushing
- Take a couple of deep breaths before holding one to push
The placenta/afterbirth stage is the final stage of birth.
Most people think that the birth process is complete once your baby is here but that isn’t the case. You still have to deliver the placenta!
Luckily the placenta is usually pretty easy to deliver! A little while after you’ve birthed your baby, you will have to push out the placenta. (Don’t worry, it’s nothing like pushing out a baby! Usually it’s just a small little push).
After my baby came out, I didn’t have any energy left in me once she was born. All I wanted to do was rest and hold my baby.
Then the midwife said I still had to push the placenta out and I was like ummm… how about hell no!
I legit did not think I could push even one more time!
She convinced me to try, (because the placenta has to come out so they can inspect it to make sure there are no holes or pieces that have broken off and are left inside you) and it really was just a tiny push and the placenta was out.
Side note, breastfeeding can also help you deliver the placenta faster!
Nursing creates oxytocin which causes your uterus to contract. As it contracts and shrinks down, it helps the placenta to detach and reduces postpartum bleeding.
The 3 stages of labor go from dilating to 10 centimeters, pushing your baby out, to delivering the placenta. Although every woman’s labor and delivery are different, it’s important to know what’s happening to your body during the process.
Understanding the process will help you achieve the birth you want. You can write a birth plan to share how you want your labor and delivery experience to go and prepare your mind and body for the journey that’s to come!