Whether this is your first pregnancy or not, you may not be aware of everything that happens to your body during labor. Labor happens in four stages:
During the first stage of labor, the cervix begins to thin and dilate (open) due to the hormones that are released during labor. For a vaginal delivery, the cervix must be fully dilated (about 10 centimeters) for the baby to pass through.
The first stage of labor begins from the time the contractions start until the time the cervix is fully dilated. It’s the longest of the 4 stages and divided into 3 phases:
The early phase is also called the latent phase. It’s the longest and can last up to 20 hours, especially for first-time mothers. A typical early phase of labor starts with contractions coming every 5 to 20 minutes and lasting for 30 to 60 seconds each. Contraction pains are not as severe as the active phase.
During the early phase, the cervix opens to about 3 centimeters (1 inch). As the cervix begins to open, a sticky, jelly-like, pink or slightly bloody discharge called “show” may come out of the vagina. This is the mucus plug that blocks the cervical opening during pregnancy.
The fetal membranes often rupture in the early phase of labor and the amniotic fluid leaks or gushes out. This is called “water breaking” and is painless. If your water breaks or if you experience significant vaginal bleeding, you need to contact your doctor.
After the cervix dilates to around 3 centimeters (1 inch), the active phase of labor begins.
During the transitional phase, the cervix will open to about 8-10 centimeters (3-4 inches), which is the diameter needed for the baby to pass through.
The second stage of labor begins when the cervix is fully dilated to 10 centimeters and ends with the delivery of the baby. This stage may last between 20 minutes to 2 hours. It may take longer for first-time mothers and for those who have an epidural.
The third stage of labor begins after the baby is born and ends with pushing out the placenta through the vagina. Typically, this occurs between 5-30 minutes after childbirth.
Recovery begins during the first 2-3 hours after delivery. During this time, the uterus contracts here and there, pushing out what’s left inside and reestablishing muscle tone.
These contractions are hastened by breastfeeding, which stimulates the production of the hormone oxytocin. During this time, you may experience:
When you can, you may take a warm shower and then rest while recovering from the stress of labor and childbirth. You can also start breastfeeding as needed. Keeping skin-to-skin contact with the baby is the best way to help the baby learn to breastfeed and keep them warm and calm.
Your partner can also use skin-to-skin contact to help keep the baby warm if you don’t feel up to it. Your baby will also be cared for or monitored during this time by a neonatologist.