Stages of Labor and Birth

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Every woman’s experience of labor is different, even from one pregnancy to the next. You won’t know how labor and childbirth will unfold until it happens. Learning about labor can make you feel more in control and less frightened about what is going to happen.

There are 3 stages of labor. In the first stage the cervix gradually opens up (dilates). In the second stage the baby is pushed down the vagina and is born. In the 3rd stage the placenta comes away from the wall of the uterus and is also pushed out of the vagina.

The First Stage of Labor: Early Labor and Active Labor

This stage of labor occurs when you begin to feel regular contractions, which cause the cervix to dilate, soften, shorten and thin (effacement). This allows the baby to move into the birth canal. The 1st stage is the longest of the 3 stages

Early Labor

During early labor:

  • Your cervix dilates and efface; 0-4 cm

  • The contractions are short and usually mild. They may be 20 minutes apart and very inconsistent( take note if your contractions are growing more intense, regular, lasting and becoming closer together)

  • Your water may break. When your water breaks take note of the, time of rupture, color of the fluid and the odor. The water should be clear or slightly pink. ( A greenish or bloody color can indicate a problem with the baby and you will need to see the doctor immediately)

Early labor is unpredictable. For first time mothers, the average length varies from hours to days. It’s often shorter for subsequent deliveries. Unless your contractions increase in frequency and intensity you would prefer staying at home rather than spending extra hours in hospital. For many women, early labor isn’t uncomfortable. Try to stay calm and relaxed

How can one maintain comfort?

  • Keep upright and gently active. This will progress your labor and help your baby descend into the pelvis and help the cervix dilate. E.g. you can go for a walk

  • Take a shower or bath

  • Watch a movie or listen to relaxing music

  • Eat and drink as you will need energy. However, many women feel nauseous when labor starts, so if you don’t feel like eating, you can drink water or isotonic drinks (sports drinks) to keep yourself hydrated and your energy levels up

Active Labor

Now is the time to go to the hospital. During active labor your contractions will become longer, stronger and close together. Contractions may last up to 45 seconds and come every 2- 5 minutes. Your cervix dilates 4 cm-8 cm. The mother tends to become more serious and the support from their support partner would come in handy. This a good time to start your breathing techniques and try a few relaxation exercises between contractions. You should try switching positions often during this stage

How to Maintain Comfort

  • Take a walk or stair climbing with your support partner, stopping to breathe during contractions

  • Have gentle massage between contractions

  • Roll on a birthing ball

The last part of active labor often referred to as Transition is the most challenging phase. The contractions are usually very strong and may come every 2-3 minutes and last up to 90 seconds. The cervix opens from 8 cm to 10 cm. Laboring woman may vomit and have shaking chills or sweating. Some women feel an urge to push before the cervix is fully dilated (pant or blow out slowly and gently through contractions. You may try lying on your side, to reduce the pressure of the baby’s head on the cervix)

The Second Stage of Labor: The birth of your Baby

This stage begins when your cervix is fully dilated, and last until the birth of your baby. Your midwife will help you find a comfortable position and will guide you when you feel the urge push. During this stage, the baby’s head move down until it can be seen. When the head is visible, the midwife will ask you to stop pushing, and to pant or puff a couple of quick short breaths, blowing out through your mouth. This allows your baby’s head to be born slowly and gently without tearing the perineum. After the baby’s head is delivered, the rest of the baby’s body will follow shortly

The Third Stage of Labor: Delivery of the Placenta

After your baby is born, the uterus can contract to pushout the placenta. Your midwife will offer you an injection called syntocinon, which makes the uterus contract and helps prevent the heavy bleeding (Postpartum hemorrhage)

Let your baby breastfeed as soon as possible after birth. It helps your uterus contract and with breastfeeding later on. Skin to skin contact with your baby is important and helps with bonding. Relish this special time with your baby!


Stages of labor and birth: Baby, it’s time! (2020 6). Retrieved from

NHS. (2009). The Pregnancy Book (Vol. 192). UK: NHS.

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