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Vaginal Birth Basics

What to expect when baby is finally ready to be born.

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Most babies are delivered vaginally. It is the method most patients and doctors prefer, for many reasons. Here’s a Q&A to explain why.

What is a vaginal birth?

A vaginal birth is when a baby is delivered through the vagina, also called the birth canal.

What happens during a vaginal birth?

Once you’re in labor, your uterus contracts to open (dilate) and thin out (efface) the cervix — the opening from the uterus to the vagina — so your baby can get out of the uterus through the birth canal.

What can I expect during labor?

Labor progresses in three stages:

Stage 1 includes early labor, when contractions begin and the cervix starts to change. Contractions may be five to 15 minutes apart. It progresses to active labor, when contractions are stronger, last longer and are closer together, perhaps three minutes apart. Stage 1 ends when the cervix is fully dilated at 10 cm. This is the longest stage of labor, usually lasting between 12 and 18 hours for a first baby, and 8 to 10 hours if you’ve given birth before vaginally. It’s different for every woman and every birth. Your doctor may give you medicine to help it along.

Stage 2 is when you will push and deliver your baby. It can last 20 minutes to 3 hours or longer. You'll push during contractions and take a break between contractions. After your baby is born, the umbilical cord will be cut.

Stage 3 is delivery of the placenta, or afterbirth. It lasts from a few minutes to about 20 minutes. You'll feel another set of contractions. Labor is over once the placenta is out.

What are the benefits of a vaginal birth?

Benefits include shorter hospital stays, lower infection rates and faster recovery. Babies have less risk of respiratory issues. A C-section, by contrast, is a major surgery. It involves delivering the baby through an incision in the mother’s abdomen. It comes with certain risks for moms and babies.

When is it unsafe to have a vaginal birth?

Sometimes a vaginal birth can be risky for you or your baby. Your doctor will recommend a C-section when it’s the safer option. Many factors can cause a change in plans. A mother’s health problems, issues with the placenta or umbilical cord, and a baby in breech position or in distress are a few examples.

By Ginny Greene, Contributing Editor

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Your Pregnancy and Childbirth: Month to Month. 6th ed. Washington, DC: ACOG; 2015.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.Committee opinion: Cesarean delivery on maternal request. No. 559, April 2013. Reaffirmed 2015. Accessed: June 22, 2016. Pregnancy: Labor and birth. Accessed: June 22, 2016.
American College of Obsetricians and Gynecologists. Cesarean Birth (C-section) FAQ. Accessed: June 22, 2016.

Last Updated: June 24, 2016