Labor

Understanding the Three Stages of Labour

It’s good to know what you’re about to go through. Labour has several aspects to it. Some are more intense than others. So let’s get to understanding the three stages of labour.

We’re going to go over the text book explanation of labour, and then I’m going to talk about my experience with each. Even though there are things that typically happen, it doesn’t mean everyone experiences them.

Before we go into real labour, let’s talk about false labour.

False Labour aka Braxton Hicks

Braxton Hicks are false contractions

Braxton hicks (false contractions) feel like real contractions from early labour. For some women, they can hurt. The thing to remember is that they can be relieved.

If changing your position relieves the contraction, it’s false. Other remedies to stop braxton hicks include walking, talking a warm (not hot) bath, drinking lots of water, and drinking warm milk or herbal tea.

For some, these do not start until late third trimester. But for others, they can start as early as the second trimester.

You can learn more about braxton hicks from the American Pregnancy Association.

My Experience

I didn’t have any early Braxton Hicks. About a week before I gave birth I started experiencing some contractions. They weren’t very painful and were erratic.

The first stage of Labour

First Stage of Labour

The first stage has two parts, early and active. A woman may not be dilated or effaced at the beginning. Or maybe her body prepared early for labour using braxton hicks, and she’s already a little effaced and dilated.

Either way, the first stage ends when the cervix is fully dilated.

What’s effacing and dilation?

When we talk about the cervix effacing we mean that it’s getting thinner.

Dilation refers to the cervix opening. Dilation is complete at 10 cm. Even in the US, where inches are normally used, we use centimeters when we refer to the dilation of the cervix.

A woman can still talk to people and do small tasks during early labour contractions

Early Labour

Early labour is when the fun really begins. Contractions cannot be alleviated by walking or changing position. Slowly, they get more and more constant. Women can usually talk during a contraction at this point.

Because early labour can be confused with braxton hicks, it is difficult to determine how long early labour is for many women. Even if a woman doesn’t have braxton hicks it can be hard to tell.

For this reason, there is no definite time frame. Another reason is that all of these stages of labour vary from woman to woman. Choosing a standard time is not possible. A range of 6-12 hours is given as typical.

Early Labour is considered over when the cervix has dilated between 4-6 cm. For an uncomplicated pregnancy in the US, this is when doctors advise heading to the hospital.

Now most of us aren’t able to check our dilation level. So we go by contractions of when to head to the hospital.

In healthy pregnancies, women are advised to go to the hospital when they are having contractions five minutes apart for about a minute each.

If you go to the hospital when you’re not 4-6 cm dilated, you may be sent home.

My Experience

We went to the hospital three times. Sara was finally born on the third time. The first time we went, we thought maybe my water had broken. Nope. Home we went.

The second time, I was having contractions less than 5 minutes apart. So I called the hospital. They said to give it a few hours to make sure I was dilated enough when I got there.

My husband and I waited a bit, then went to the hospital somewhere around 11 pm. I don’t remember very well. That’s either the time we got there or the time we left.

Even though I was having regular contractions, they weren’t strong enough. I was not dilated enough.

The hospital offered pitocin to speed things along. I chose to go home to try and be comfortable while waiting for my cervix to dilate more.

We continued to labour at home into the following day until about 1 pm when we went to the hospital the final time. I was still only 4 cm dilated.

The contractions really start to get painful during active labour.

Active Labour

If early labour is when the fun starts (and it is fun at first, the long awaited delivery is about to happen!), active labour is when you have the ‘oh shit’ moment. Some have it before active labour actually starts.

It’s when the contractions are really starting to hurt and last for longer with less time in between. You can’t talk or concentrate on anything else except maybe your breathing.

Active labour usually lasts 4-6 hours for first time moms. For veteran moms, their bodies usually go through labour faster.

Dilation goes to the full 10 cm. Dilation is also fast during this phase. Many use a term called transition to refer to the last 8-10 cm dilation.

My Experience

From the time I got to the hospital to the time Sara was born was about 7 hours. By the time I got to the hospital, I was in active labour.

I gave birth natural. So no pain killers. I felt the contractions in full. When I was finally allowed out of the hospital bed and on a pregnancy ball after arrival, the contractions became easier to manage.

For some reason, the bed felt like a trap. I even had a panic attack during one contraction.

Sitting on the pregnancy ball was much more comfortable and allowed me to bear the pain easier. When a contraction struck, I’d just lean on the bed while my husband put pressure on my hips.

And that’s how we continued into transition labour.

Transition just sucks. No other way to put it.

Transition Labour

The stage that really hurts. This is the stage when those going natural might start asking for that epidural (myself included).

Transition is when dilating the final 2 cm. It can last a few minutes or a few hours.

It’s not uncommon for women to shake and shiver during this portion.

My Experience

At about 6 pm one of the nurses believed I was starting transition. She did not know how to check my cervix on a pregnancy ball and knew the bed sucked for me. So she didn’t physically check it.

But from how hard a time I was having dealing with contractions compared to before, she thought it was a safe guess.

I think she was right.

They like to hook people up to a machine that can monitor the baby and a woman’s contractions.

It was also shift change over time. A new nurse came in and did her checks. She was having a hard time getting a reading using the hand sensor, so she made me get back in the bed to try and use the big sensor.

Everything went downhill from there. My contractions started compounding. She couldn’t check my cervix. I couldn’t stop shaking long enough for her to do so.

We tried a few different positions in the bed but nothing helped. Eventually, I felt Sara pushing against my cervix and that it was time to push.

Pushing is the second stage of labour

Second Stage of Labour – Pushing

This stage isn’t broken up into different portions like the first stage.

That said, some women do experience a break before it’s time for them to push. There can be a half hour break where the contractions are less severe giving the new mom a chance to rest before the next ordeal.

Not everyone experiences it.

The pushing stage ends when the baby is born and it can last a few minutes or several hours.

Knowing when the pushing stage actually starts can be tricky for the one giving birth. Some women experience the feeling of needing to push before being fully dilated (10 cm).

Pushing before full dilation can make the labour experience more painful and cause tearing. So it’s important for labouring moms to pay attention to the hospital staff and listen to pushing directions.

One way to prevent tearing is to push slowly. Pushing too fast prevents the body from working with the pushes to get out of the way of the baby.

Babies are normally born head first. There are other variations, but I won’t go over those here.

When the full width of the head starts to show it is called crowning. When the head is fully out, the baby’s airways will be suctioned. The umbilical cord will also be checked. If it’s wrapped around the baby’s neck, it needs to be moved or cut.

Once that part is done, the shoulders and the rest of the body come out.

Baby is born!

That sweet little baby is finally out!

My Experience

From that first moment when I felt the need to push to the doctor arriving about 20 minutes later, the nurses told me not to push. It wasn’t that my body wasn’t ready, it was. It was that they wanted the doctor to do the delivery.

I listened and did my best to fight the contractions. That was the most painful part of the whole experience. There was a team of nurses around me monitoring and prepared to help in case something went wrong.

They had to give me an oxygen mask because I wasn’t breathing well.

They gave constant encouragement in telling me not to push.

But I couldn’t fight all the contractions. I pushed sometimes. My water broke during this time.

When I saw the doctor in the room, I was done. I pushed Sara out in 2 or 3 pushes. Because I pushed her out so fast, I tore really bad. We went from not being able to see her to her being fully born in less than five minutes.

Delivery of the placenta is the third stage of labour

Third Stage- Delivering the Placenta

The baby is born! But wait, there’s more!? Yup, the placenta has got to come out.

The uterus continues to contract to push it out. These contractions are usually not as painful. It lasts about 5 to 10 minutes.

My Experience

I had read beforehand that the delivery of the placenta can be super painful. I was prepared for that.

It wasn’t painful for me. The stitching I got after hurt way more.

Those are the Three Stages

Some talk about a fourth stage of labour, as in the recovery stage. But I’m not going to go into that now. I have a post where I talk about postpartum health care tips.

Here is a labour video that’s about 2 minutes. I’m not putting it right on this site in case anyone is squeamish and doesn’t want to see a live birth.

What has your experience in labour been? Did any of the stages stand out as particularly challenging? Are you waiting for labour and find any of the stages scary?

**Note: Even though I’m American I used the English spelling for labour in this post. It was fun and felt very pleasing for some reason. Normally I spell it labor.


Sources:

  • Babycenter: https://www.babycenter.com/stages-of-labor#articlesection2,
  • Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/labor-and-delivery/multimedia/cervical-effacement-and-dilation/img-20006991

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Dhayours
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Dhayours

Wow. This is so nice. Many new mothers get into motherhood ignorant of some of these important things. This would help a lot of young mommas who do not have sufficient idea on prepreganancy and postpregnancy signs. Like over here, many mothers experience different things during pregnancy that they have no idea what to do, when some of those things are not as serious as it looks. Thanks for this. I’ll share with friends who just got married. 

Renton
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Renton

This is a great post! I don’t know a lot about pregnancy (except what we see on TV), but I really learned a lot. Braxton Hicks sounds a little scary because they feel like the real deal. Thankfully (thanks to you) I now know of a few tricks to try to rule this out as fake labour pain. Like I said I have heard about a cervix being dilated but I never actually looked up what it meant until now. It’s pretty crazy that the hospital sends you home if you are not dilated enough but perhaps the drive home and back encourages the… Read more »

Susan
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Susan

Nicole, This is such an excellent article for first-time mothers to read your experience with childbirth is such a magical time in a woman’s life.  Each and every birth is completely different and true the second time or third time around might seem like your having an easier time with delivery, but I think it is being more prepared knowing everything your body is going to be going through during the delivery.  Experience is there and knowing your body you are now capable of knowing when to push and when you are ready to deliver.   Thank you so much for… Read more »

Sylvia
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Sylvia

You wrote a very good and detailed article about the subject matter. I have seen and, went with family and friends, to the hospital to be a part of the birth process, as support. I saw in each case some similarity how things are going and what the new mother-to-be went through and yet, there was no real. at least to me, the same birth process. I personally was surprised that it can be that different of experience to each woman. I grew up with the understanding, my great-grandmother was a freelance midwife, that giving birth has to be the same,… Read more »

Miche
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Miche

Great Article Nicole! I’m a father of two little children and I think that one of the worst things that can happen when labour starts is not to know what will be happen. Sharing experience and scientific points of view is really useful for first time mums! I wasn’t directly involved but when the labour starts the body rules. It knows what to do but you don’t! Knowing in advance what will happen helps even the father to attend and support the mother. In my experience it has been very useful! Great Job Nicole!

Grace
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Grace

I still remember the time when I thought labor is as straight forward as how it is shown in the drama / movie. And then found out just how wrong those scenes are actually!  And I can totally relate with you about holding the urge to push. I have been through it and it is seriously the worst part. That few minutes felt so much longer than it actually is. Thank you for taking the time to record down the different stages. I believe all first time mother-to-be should read this so that they have a realistic expectation of what… Read more »

Tekyia
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Tekyia

This post is so close to home for me having recently given birth! I did so much research when I was pregnant so I would be prepared but when I got to the labour phase…things quickly went from my mind. Our pushing stories and delivery of the placenta are similar.  My daughter was out in about 3 pushes and I tore pretty badly :(.  For the placenta, I had heard it was painful to deliver it but for me it was a breeze. I felt like it just fell out. Or maybe the pain was so slight in comparison to what… Read more »

cjciganotto
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cjciganotto

Hello Nicole,Reading your article I did not know that a breast can have early false contractions called Braxton Hicks.

Your advice seems to be very appropriate to calm the pains it causes. 

My congratulations for giving birth naturally, you’ve been a very brave mom. 

Finally, you have detailed very well all the characteristics that the mother has during each stage of the birth and the excellent help that the nurses have given you. 

Thanks a lot for sharing your experience.

Lok Which
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Lok Which

This is really informative and educative. This is a must read for every woman and every lady who wants to have a kid of their own. I never knew there are three stages of labour . I thought there is only one stage in which the baby is born . This post has really opened my eyes to understand crucial things I need to know on labour. I will strongly share this post to women and ladies. Thanks for sharing this post.

Michele
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Michele

Hi Nicole – very helpful and informative article about the three stages of labor…..or should I say labour 😉.  Everyone may experience these stages differently, but shar your experiences can be so insightful and helpful for others.  

Great article to help set expectations for those who are going through their first pregnancy.

Thank you,

Michele

Clement
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Clement

Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience here, in this part of the world, many women have no clue to what the labour period is all about, Your post has really provided great insight to this stages of pregnancy and labour. I think women who experience  the toughest labour is definitely the first timers. I will share this post and I believe women around me will find it helpful. Thanks

Nancy
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Nancy

What a informative site, I am glad to see this.  I wish I had this 10 years ago.  No one would of explained any of this to me. Thanks for the details and being so specific too.  Some woman have no clue what they are going to experience.  Moms everywhere can appreciate the truth and know what others experience.  Its a beautiful gift to bring life in the world but its not always so easy for woman. This is also helpful for when you forget somethings on your next pregnancy. I hope your having a sibling for your daughter eventually. … Read more »

Babsie Wagner
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Babsie Wagner

I sure wish I had read your article before I gave birth to my twins.  I had no idea about a placenta, it’s just too bad the doctor doesn’t prepare you better for what you are going to be going through.   I thought after all was said and done that I was finally finished, but no no no.  I had to deliver my placentas.  Oh no!  LOL! Nothing could prepare me for the very best part, though.  How much I loved those babies.  All the pain in the world can’t take away the wonderful, life-long blessing that is having children. My best… Read more »

Riaz Shah
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Riaz Shah

I never knew the pain women have to go through for this Nicole,

And I’m thinking that there are many more like me who are clueless of the pain mothers go through when it comes to giving birth. I got a glimpse of the pain already, couldn’t imagine how painful it must be after the stitching at the end, were you able to sleep at night with the pain ache?

Thanks so much for writing this, I’m gonna visit my mum and give her a hug 🙂

charles39
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charles39

I am a man so I won’t claim that I have experienced  labor pain but i do have my own experience through my wife who I happened to take to the hospital once during labor pains from that day I still remember is not Avery nice but it always comes with joy.but now the real thing before then I had taken her to the hospital almost four times due to those force labors .it was not very happy moment when doctors told us to go home it’s not yet  I was very flustrated but idint know what I know  Now.

Paul
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Paul

An excellent post, Sara.

One of the most interesting articles that I have read. 

Nothing like experience to give meaning to post. Your descriptions are like only a mother could describe. The false labour, the three stages and the entire process. What an experience. The video completes the post. Undoubtedly, the most expressive and real post I will review today.

Would you do it again?

On average, does it get easier? or can all pregnancies have complications?

I look forward to your “post-partum” blog.

Rest well. Well done!

A proud and honourable achievement.

Paul

Olatoye Dolapo
Guest
Olatoye Dolapo

Your experience is really amazing and wonderful, so you mean a woman can parade the hospital on more than one occasion before the final delivery. Now, even as a man I understand the different stages of being a mother. Thank you for this. Mothers are jewel, do you know the pregnancy delivery pain is beyond mere words?

Lady Esther
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Lady Esther

Hi,  Thank you for such an informative article on child birth. I have personally experienced child birth – I have two adults child, a  girl and boy. I have to say both delivery’s were very different. For my daughter it when fairly quick with most everything on time. I did have natural child birth with no  assistance for pain medication.  The birth was between labor and delivery 6 to 8 hrs .  It was easy and things when very good.  My son birth was a little longer but no complications and it’s was a little more intense with the pain… Read more »

Henry
Guest
Henry

Hi! Thank you very much for this great post. It’s highly informative. And I greatly appreciate you have shared your experience along this journey. We get to know what the books say and learn from your first hand experience.

It’s good to know your Braxton Hicks weren’t very painful and were erratic. Somebody told me that they could start even 90 days before the child is born and that they hurt (as you have also said).

And everybody I know has said that the delivery of the placenta is super painful. But I’m glad it wasn’t painful for you.