Stages of labor
Learning the signs of labor can help you know when it's time to call your health provider and head to the hospital. Learning about the stages of labor can help you know what to expect during labor and birth.
Labor happens in three stages. How long labor lasts and how it moves from stage to stage are different for every woman. But each stage has some signs that are true for most women.
What happens in Stage 1: Early labor and active labor?
The first stage of labor includes early labor and active labor. You may be in early labor for a few hours or days, especially for first-time moms. You may want to spend this time at home or wherever you’re most comfortable. When you’re in active labor, your provider may tell you to head to the hospital.
During early labor:
- Your cervix starts to dilate (open up).
- You may feel strong and regular contractions that come every 5 to 20 minutes and last 30 to 60 seconds.
- You may notice a bloody show. This is bleeding form the vagina at the beginning of labor.
During active labor:
- Your contractions get stronger, longer and more painful.
- There may be very little time to relax in between contractions.
- You may feel pressure in your lower back.
- Your cervix dilates (opens) fully to 10 centimeters.
What you can do:
- Rest and relax.
- If your water hasn't broken, take a shower or bath.
- Change positions. Take a walk around the house or room.
- Suck on ice chips. With your provider's okay, drink water and eat healthy snacks during early labor.
- Place ice packs on your lower back or have your partner rub your lower back.
- Place a cold washcloth on your forehead.
- Go to the bathroom often to empty your bladder.
What happens in Stage 2: Your baby is born?
During the second stage of labor, your cervix is fully dilated (opened) and ready for childbirth. Your health provider wants you to begin pushing so your baby can be born. This stage can last as short as 20 minutes or as long as several hours, especially for first-time moms.
During Stage 2:
- You may feel pressure on your rectum from your baby's head moving down the birth canal. Your rectum is where bowel movements leave the body.
- You may feel the urge to push.
- Your provider may give you an episiotomy. This is a small cut made at the opening of the vagina to help let the baby out. Most women don't need an episiotomy.
- Your baby's head begins to crown (show).
- Your provider guides the baby out of the birth canal. She may use special tools to help this happen.
- Your baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut.
What you can do:
- Find a position that is comfortable for you to push. If you're uncomfortable or pushing has stopped, try a new position.
- Push when you feel the urge or when your health provider tells you.
- Rest in between contractions.
What happens in Stage 3: Delivery of the placenta?
During the third stage of labor, the placenta is delivered. The placenta grew in your uterus (womb) and supplied your baby food and oxygen through the umbilical cord. While you're bonding with your new baby during the first minutes of her life, your provider will get you ready for this final stage. It may take 5 to 30 minutes to deliver the placenta.
During Stage 3:
- Contractions begin 5 to 10 minutes after birth.
- You may have chills or shakiness.
What you can do:
- Push when your health provider tells you.
- If you'd like, ask to see the placenta.
- Begin breastfeeding. Most women can start breastfeeding within 1 hour of their baby's birth.
Once you're all done, give yourself a big pat on the back for all your hard work. You've made it through childbirth! Enjoy the first special moments with your new baby as you and your partner welcome him to the world.
Last reviewed May 2014
Most common questions
What is an epidural?
An epidural is the most popular and effective kind of pain relief for labor. You get a needle with a small tube attached placed in your lower back. Medicine goes through the tube while you're in labor. It numbs your lower body so you can't feel the pain from your contractions. The medicine doesn't make you go to sleep, so you can be wide awake when your baby is born!
What is fetal-scalp blood sampling?
Fetal-scalp blood sampling is a quick test your health care provider can use to check if your baby is getting enough oxygen during labor.
During labor, your cervix dilates (opens) to let your baby out. Your cervix is the opening to the uterus that sits at the top of the vagina. In order to have fetal-scalp blood sampling, your cervix must be dilated enough that your provider can reach your baby’s head.
The test may remind you of a pelvic exam. It takes about 5 minutes. You lie on your back with your feet in stirrups. Your provider places a plastic cone in the vagina that fits up against the baby’s head. Your provider pricks your baby’s scalp and takes a small amount of blood. The blood is tested, and results are ready in a few minutes.
You may feel some pressure during the test, but it shouldn’t hurt. Your baby may have some bruising or bleeding at the spot where he’s pricked.
If you have an infection, like HIV or hepatitis C, your provider may not recommend fetal blood sampling. This is because you can pass these infections to your baby through the spot where he’s pricked.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone your body makes to help start labor contractions. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax. They help push your baby out of your uterus (womb).
Your body also makes oxytocin during breastfeeding. Oxytocin helps your uterus shrink back to its original size after giving birth.
If labor is slow to start or your contractions stall, your health care provider may give you a medicine called Pitocin. Pitocin acts like oxytocin and can help start contractions or make them stronger.
What is Pitocin?
Pitocin is a medicine that acts like oxytocin, a hormone your body makes to help start labor contractions. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax. They help push your baby out of your uterus (womb). Health care providers often use Pitocin to:
- Help induce labor
- Help labor move along if your contractions slow down, or if they aren’t strong enough
You may start having labor contractions shortly after you get Pitocin. It can make your contractions very strong and lower your baby's heart rate. Your provider carefully monitors your baby's heart rate for changes and adjusts the amount of Pitocin you get, if needed.