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The Phases of Labor: Are You Labor-Ready?

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and should not be considered medical advice. Always consult your doctor for the most appropriate treatment.

Woman in a Phase of Labor

While it’s not called “labor” for nothing—the final phase definitely involves some work—the phases of labor are really about the cervix getting ready for delivery, a process that begins before most women even feel it.

Phase 1: Early (or Latent) Labor

Cervix diameter: from 0 to 4 centimeters
Duration: several hours to several weeks

In this phase, your cervix will start to thin and dilate. If you don’t feel contractions, you might not know labor has begun.

What’s Happening:

  • Mild to moderate contractions lasting 30 to 45 seconds, at regular or irregular intervals.
  • Contractions may not be noticeable until the final 2 to 6 hours.
  • Possible amniotic sac rupture.

How to Deal:

  • Feeling excited, anxious or relieved? Try to relax.
  • If you feel contractions, note when they happen and how far apart they occur.
  • If your water breaks, note the time and the appearance of the fluid.
  • Engage your support person to be sure you have what you need.

Phase 2: Active Labor

Cervix diameter: from 6 to 10 centimeters
Duration: a few hours

Things are getting interesting. At this point, you’re usually in the hospital or birthing center, or at home with your doula if you’ve opted for a home birth.

What’s Happening:

  • Contractions intensify, last 60 to 90 seconds, and happen every 2 to 4 minutes.
  • Amniotic sac rupture—either naturally or manually.
  • Possible backache, fatigue and menstrual-like cramping.

How to Deal:

  • Ask for what you need from your support people.
  • Start breathing exercises.
  • If your OB allows it, keep moving. It can help ease the pain of contractions.
  • If it’s working, keep up the rhythmic breathing.

Phase 3: Pushing

Cervix diameter: 10 centimeters
Duration: 1 to 3 hours on average

This is the most challenging part, but also the most rewarding.

What’s Happening:

  • Forceful contractions lasting 45 to 90 seconds that may or may not come with a strong urge to push.
  • Increased pressure in perineum, rectum and lower back.
  • Possible exhaustion or renewed sense of energy.
  • Stretching or burning sensation.

How to Deal:

  • Experiment with different positions to find the one most comfortable for you.
  • Keep that chin down and back rounded. It helps your abdominal muscles push your baby down the birth canal.
  • Listen to your doctor. Sometimes it’s important NOT to push. Relax your neck, shoulders and legs and try to pant through your contractions.
  • Keep up your rhythmic breathing exercises.
  • Grunt, groan and yell if you need to! You’re delivering a baby, for crying out loud. Let it OUT.

Phase 4: Delivering the Placenta

Your baby’s here! While it feels like you’re done with labor, there’s still one more phase to go.

Duration: 30 minutes

What’s Happening:

  • Mild contractions that last about a minute each.
  • A possible IV or injection of oxytocin to help encourage contractions.
  • Kneading and pressing on your uterus by your healthcare provider, who may ask you to help push.
  • Hunger and thirst, if it was a long labor.
  • Lots of emotions, from elation to relief.

How to Deal:

  • Focus on bonding with your new bundle of joy.
  • Enjoy a special moment with your partner or support person.
  • Savor your sense of accomplishment—you just delivered a BABY!

Just like babies, no two labor experiences are the same. While you can’t predict how it will go, a birth plan can help you prepare for all the possibilities that might happen. It’s a beautiful and exciting day. Plan ahead.

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