If you’ve ever been 38 weeks pregnant and played the waiting game wondering how your little one is going to let you know he or she is ready to come into this world, then you know it’s important to recognize the stages of labor and delivery. That way, when it’s time, there won’t be any doubts and you’ll be able to start timing those contractions, grabbing the diaper bag and hospital bag, and talking to your husband about how and when you should call the doctor.

There are three stages of labor: the first stage involves early and active labor, followed by transition, the second stage of pushing, and finally the third stage, where the placenta is delivered. During early labor is when the cervix gradually thins out and opens, followed by a more rapid dilation with stronger, longer, closer contractions in active labor. Transition happens late in active labor: this is when a woman is experiencing the most pain of childbirth right before she is ready to push.

Although everyone’s pregnancy is different, first-time mothers are said to have the longest deliveries — averaging 10 to 20 hours — with labor progressing more rapidly for moms who are giving birth for a second time or more.

Beginning labor signs

•Bowels may empty out
•Flu-like symptoms
•Water breaks
•Back pain
•Steady contractions

Early labor

When the contractions are coming routinely about every 10 minutes and lasting around 30 seconds, it’s likely you’re in early labor. They’re not likely to be very painful or last very long at first, but eventually they’ll start to come very 5 minutes and last between 40 and 60 seconds as the end of early labor approaches. Painful contractions during early labor might not dilate the cervix as quickly as you’d like, but they are going to become more painful as labor progresses.

Many midwives say, “If you can talk through your contractions, they’re not painful enough” — this is an extremely easy way to recognize the stage of labor you are experiencing. A warm bath, lying down, or relaxing are the best ways to ease the pain and uncomfortableness of early contractions. Obstetricians and midwives are likely to tell you to get some rest and try to sleep through the contractions if early labor begins in the evening so that the mother will be rested enough for the next stage of labor. How long early labor lasts depends on how ripe the cervix is at the beginning stages; it ends when the cervix is dilated 4 centimeters and progress starts to accelerate.

Active labor

Things really start to heat up and speed up during active labor, the second stage of labor, when the cervix dilates from 4 to 10 centimeters quickly and then enters transition. At this point, you won’t be able to talk through the contractions and the baby will most likely start to drop into the pelvis. It’s a good time to call your doctor or midwife once the contractions are every five minutes lasting about 60 seconds each and are painful. Sometimes contractions come with less breaks than five minutes in between, but on average they last around five, even during the transition phase.

Active labor generally takes about 8 hours for a first-time mom giving birth to a baby vaginally, and during that time you will dilate to a full 10 centimeters from 4 centimeters during early labor. If you are given Pitocin to speed up or strengthen contractions or have an epidural, the time can vary widely because the epidural can slow the contractions down. If a woman has already given birth vaginally, her second childbirth is normally shorter than the first.


When the cervix dilates from 8 to 10 centimeters at the end of active labor, it’s called transition for the shift to the second stage of labor, pushing. Transition is the time when most mothers will say they want to quit or ask for an epidural or other pain medications if she has insisted on a natural childbirth up until that point. By now, the baby is in the pelvis, contractions are closer together and stronger, and you feel the urge to push.

Once a woman is fully dilated in the second stage of labor, she is ready to push her baby out, which can last up to three hours or longer and has been said to be the biggest relief after all of the pain from contractions. After that is the last stage of labor, where the placenta separates from the uterus wall and is delivered after the baby.

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