The stages of labor are often thought to be a mystery. In all honesty it is a mystery in many ways. Each woman will have a different labor and yet many parts are the same. Below you will find a crash course in the stages of labor, what each does, the parameters, and some average events of that stage. Remember, however, that very few women will follow this to the letter, there will be some variation.
First stage of labor is usually the longest part of labor. This is where you are having contractions and your cervix is dilating. This stage is broken down into three phases:
- Early Phase
"Yippy! I'm in labor!"
The early phase of labor may be spent wondering "Is this really labor?" The contractions are usually very light and may be 20 minutes or more apart in the beginning, gradually becoming closer, possibly up to five minutes apart. The key to this stage is to go about your normal schedule or if it's the middle of the night go back to bed! Most women will be very comfortable during this stage and with a few exceptions those having a hospital birth will not be in the hospital at this point.
- Active Phase
"This is hard work."
The active phase of labor is where many women are getting serious and withdrawing to do the hard work of labor. Contractions generally are four or five minutes apart and may last up to 60 seconds long. Remember this still gives you a big break in between. Use this break to relax, go to the bathroom, and drink something. For a woman who desires medications in labor they will usually go to the hospital in this stage of labor, while those desiring little or no medications will go towards the end of this stage or the beginning of transition, again, with a few exceptions. Mobility and relaxation are the key to getting through active labor. Remember to use the skills you learned in childbirth class and call your doula if you haven't yet.
- Transition Phase
"Okay, I'll go home and come back tomorrow!"
This is one of the shortest parts of labor, but definitely one of the hardest. Your contractions may be two or three minutes apart, lasting up to a minute and a half. Some women will shake and may vomit during this stage. This is normal. Remember that this stage usually doesn't last more than an hour or two. Partners, your support is crucial here. Remind her how well she is doing, and help her find a comfortable position, use cold rags for her face, and give her sips of water or ice in between contractions. This is hard work. When this phase is done you will be completely dilated! Some women will have a small break of no contractions after becoming fully dilated, and yet not feeling the need to push yet. Sheila Kitzinger calls this the "rest and be thankful" phase.
"I can push?"
Pushing usually feels better for most women. They have spent the first stage of labor relaxing and letting their body do all the work, now they can actually do something to help. This stage can last three or more hours, but for many women will not. The length of this stage is dependent upon the positioning of the mother (upright = faster), the positioning of the baby, whether medications have been used, etc. The contractions will usually space out a bit, going back to about four minutes apart. This stage ends with the birth of your baby!
"I forgot the placenta!"
After you are holding your beautiful baby, you may be asked to push again after some point, and you might be puzzled. Oh yes, the placenta! Don't worry this one has no bones and is much easier to push out. Nursing your baby after he or she is born will help the uterus to contract and expel the placenta, but most come within an hour after birth, usually within a few minutes. Don't worry about it, spend the time bonding with your new little one.
"I asked for this?"
No real contractions to speak of, but postpartum is generally accepted as the fourth stage of labor. Your body is going through many changes now that the baby has been born. Not to mention the large changes your family is going through adding a new person to your family. Be sure to ask for help. Your body will slowly change and become more like your prepregnancy self, but not exactly. Hang in there, babies grow way to fast. I've often said that we need to save postpartum for when our children are about three years old so that we can enjoy the tiny newborns.
Enjoy your labor, believe it or not it's the hardest work you'll do, but it yields the most rewards.