stages of labor graphic

stages of labor: a quick and easy explanation

Updated June 2018

A common question that pregnant women ask is what are the stages of labor.  Here is an infographic to briefly explain each stage of labor.  You’ll also find each stage described in a little more detail below.

pre-labor

Pre-labor refers to all the contractions that you have during the last few weeks of your pregnancy before “real” labor starts. These contractions are known as Braxton Hicks contractions. Some women don’t ever feel these contractions and that’s perfectly normal.  The main difference between pre-labor and real labor is that pre-labor will stop if you start doing something else and real labor will just keep progressing until your baby is eventually born. In other words, The Braxton-hicks can feel just like the real thing.

first stage of labor

The first stage is that part of labor where the cervix thins and opens. It is also called effacement and dilation.  Contractions  open the cervix which will then allow your baby to be born during second stage. This opening is called dilating or dilation of the cervix.

the first stage of labor is divided into 3 parts

early first stage

Your contractions can be between 30-60 seconds long and can vary from 5 minutes to 20 minutes apart and jump around a little bit til a contraction pattern can be established.  It is generally the part of your labor from 0-4 centimeters dilated. You can read more about how long it takes the cervix to get to 5 cm dilated or what does 2 cm dilated mean?

During early labor, the contractions might make you pause and stop what you’re doing, but they’re not very intense. It’s best to just ignore your labor as long as possible and try not to watch the clock.  You are usually very chatty and running around doing last minute things before baby arrives  in between contractions. It’s best to just go about your usual routine which could be staying in bed if labor starts in the middle of the night while you are sleeping. As labor progresses, the contractions become longer and stronger and you phase into active labor.  You can read more about early labor in this birth story.

active labor

During active labor, you’re no longer chatty. You are quiet in between contractions, getting ready for the next wave. You might start to vocalize or moan during the contractions.  You might go lie down and get comfortable for awhile.  Getting in the tub during this part of labor will help you relax and help labor to progress.

Active labor is the part of labor where medically speaking, you are from 5-8 centimeters dilated. Contractions are at least a minute long and usually fall into a consistent pattern of 3-5 minutes apart, but even this can vary and it’s normal to skip a contraction once in awhile.

This part of labor is where you have to concentrate on your contractions to get through them. This is where all your relaxation techniques that you’ve been working on come into play.  It’s where you’ll probably ask for the epidural if you don’t want to go natural if you haven’t already asked for pain meds.

transition

Transition is the part of your labor in between active labor and the pushing stage. It’s where your cervix finishes opening up and you become completely dilated so the baby can be born.  For most women, transition is the shortest and most intense part of labor, but not always.

Transition is the part of labor where you have the longest, strongest contractions that are the closest together. Women usually describe transition as overwhelming. Contractions can be 90 seconds long and only 2 minutes apart, meaning you only have about 30 seconds in between them to prepare for the next contraction. This is what can make it the hardest part–there isn’t a lot of time to focus and regroup after one contraction ends before the next one begins.

Emotionally, transition is a time of self-doubt and you need verbal encouragement from your husband, nurse, doula or other support person. This is the time where women planning a drug-free free birth wonder why they ever wanted to do that, but these thoughts pass and soon you start pushing.

second stage of labor

The second stage of labor is better known as the pushing phase.  Once the cervix is fully dilated and effaced, you feel the urge to push during contractions. When you push, you’re bringing the baby down and out so he can be born. The pushing stage can last anywhere from just a couple contractions to over an hour or more.  You might wonder how long it’s ok to push.

third stage of labor

Third stage occurs after the baby is born and you continue to have contractions so that the placenta releases from your uterus and with a final push, it is expelled.  The placenta usually is born within a half hour after birth, sometimes only a few minutes, but taking an hour or more is still normal as long as you aren’t bleeding too much.

fourth stage of labor

The fourth stage of labor is the first couple hours after the placenta is delivered where mom and baby are getting acquainted and the uterus continues to contract so it can shrink. Breastfeeding or just interacting with your baby causes contractions to continue, which is necessary for this involution of the uterus.  Your nurse will rub your uterus and might show you how to do it.  This will hurt, but is necessary to prevent unnecessary bleeding.

I hope this has answered your questions about the stages of labor. Feel free to ask a question if something is not clear or browse the website for more pregnancy and birth articles.