Understanding the stages of labor
Are you dreading labor? Calm yourself down by learning as much about it beforehand. You can allay many of your fears by understanding what will be happening to your body. Labor is different for each woman and for each pregnancy, but there are three main stages:
Stage 1: The longest stage
This stage begins with the first uterine contractions and ends with complete dilation of the cervix. You can spend this stage in the comfort of your own home. At first contractions are like strong menstrual cramps, lasting from 30 to 40 seconds and occurring every 5 to 15 minutes. They increase in rhythm, strength, and duration until eventually they last as long as 60 seconds and come every 2 to 3 minutes.
What’s happening: Your uterus and cervix, which together look like an upside-down pear, are rearranging themselves into the shape of a keg. The cervix, or neck of the pear, is getting shorter and dilating or opening so your baby’s head can get through. This change is called effacement. At the end of this stage the cervix will be dilated to about 10 centimeters (nearly 4 inches). During the first 2 stages of labor, your baby’s progress may be monitored electronically.
Stage 2: Pushing and delivery
This stage allows you to be an active participant. It’s time to push with the contractions. Using the techniques learned in childbirth classes will help you breathe and bear down, making each contraction more effective. Plus you’ll get lots of coaching from your partner and the medical personnel. While labor pains sometimes can be significant, there are several ways you can help alleviate the pain.
Learn more about:
How to calm fears about labor pain
How child birth classes can reduce labor pain
What’s happening: Near the end, the baby’s head can be seen during and after a contraction. That’s called crowning. At this point the doctor may do an episiotomy—a shallow cut into the lower vagina to keep your tissue from tearing. Next (the part you’ve been anticipating forever!) the baby is born, usually headfirst and face down.
After your baby is born
Here is a rough sequence of things that will happen immediately after your baby is born:
- The doctor may place your baby face down on your abdomen for skin-to-skin contact.
- Your newborn may take a first breath at that moment, or perhaps the doctor will have you gently massage the baby’s back.
- The doctor may perform a little suctioning to make sure the baby breathes freely.
- The umbilical cord will be cut. Your partner may be allowed to assist here.
- The baby’s eyes will be treated to prevent gonorrheal infection.
- The doctor will evaluate the baby’s condition and may inject the baby with vitamin K to aid in blood clotting.
- A delivery room staff member will take footprints and issue the ID bracelets—one for you and one for your newborn.
Stage 3: Afterbirth
There’s one more job to do after your baby is born: deliver the afterbirth. Your contractions may have stopped but will restart and will last between 5 and 20 minutes until the placenta is expelled.