The 3 Stages of Labor
Find out what to expect when it’s time for baby.
Labor and delivery sounds straightforward. Your cervix dilates, you push and the baby comes out. That isn’t exactly how it works. There are a few more steps in between.
Stages of labor
How labor advances and how long it lasts is different for every woman and every pregnancy. But there are some common occurrences that typically take place in a normal labor and vaginal delivery.
Often, labor is divided into three stages with the first stage being broken into two different phases. See below for what events you may experience in each stage:
- Phase One: Early Labor
This is typically the longest phase of labor and might last six to 12 hours or longer. It is when regular contractions begin. The contractions may be around five to 15 minutes apart, lasting 60 to 90 seconds in length. Many women stay home for the early phase. During this phase, it is helpful to stay relaxed. You might try some relaxation and breathing exercises you may have learned in childbirth class. Also, it may be helpful for you or your labor coach to time your contractions to see how often they are coming and how long they last. This can help determine when you are moving into active labor.
Have a discussion with your doctor or midwife in a prenatal visit to determine when to contact him or her and when to come to the hospital or birth center. Discuss any emergent signs or symptoms to look for and what you should do if they occur.
- Phase Two: Active Labor
Once you are in the hospital, your care provider will monitor your progress. He or she will also track your baby’s position and location in the birth canal. Active labor is said to begin when contractions are stronger and closer together and may come as frequently as every three minutes. During this phase, the cervix continues dilating. The cervix is fully dilated when it reaches 10 centimeters. After each contraction, try to rest without worrying about the next contraction. You may find it helpful to try a different position in your bed or with your provider’s OK, get up and move around. If you are feeling the urge to push at this point, be sure to tell your provider as it may not be time for pushing
The second stage of labor is when you will push and deliver your baby. However, pushing may not begin right away. During this period, you may notice the contractions are slower, last 60 to 90 seconds and may be two to five minutes apart. This stage of labor can last anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours or more. Once the pushing begins, things move quickly. Your provider and other team members will guide you on the best way to help the baby move through the birth canal.
Your baby crowns when the top of his or her head appears at the opening of the birth canal. Often you feel a burning sensation during this time. In some cases, your provider may need to make a small cut in the perineum between the vagina and the anus. This is called an episiotomy. It is sometimes used to enlarge the opening of the vagina for your baby. After the baby has been delivered, the umbilical cord is cut.
The last stage of labor begins after your baby is delivered and ends after delivery of the placenta or afterbirth. This is usually the shortest stage of labor as it can take under 20 minutes. You should feel mild contractions again shortly after delivering your baby and this means it is time to deliver the placenta. Labor is over once this is done. You may feel chills or shakiness during this time. If any cuts or tears were made during labor and delivery, your doctor will repair them. Your doctor or midwife will also make sure your bleeding is under control.
There is usually an overwhelming sense of relief and accomplishment at this point. The hard physical work is over. The excitement and fun of a new baby begins.
By Jennifer Mitchell, Contributing Writer
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Chapter 13: Labor and Delivery. In: ACOG’s Your Pregnancy and Childbirth Month to Month. 6th edition. Washington, DC: ACOG; 2015.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. Labor and birth. Accessed: July 7, 2016.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. How to tell when labor begins. Accessed: July 7, 2016.
March of Dimes. Pregnancy. Stages of labor. Accessed: July 7, 2016.
Last Updated: July 7, 2016