What Are the Stages of Labor?

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There are three stages of labor: contractions, childbirth, and delivery of the placenta. 

Pregnancy can be full of surprises, and labor is no different. Just how long or challenging giving birth may be varies greatly from person to person and from pregnancy to pregnancy. However, getting to know the three stages of labor can give you the information you and your support system need to feel adequately prepared for what comes next. 

Learn more about labor, step by step, plus when to call your healthcare professional and how to cope along the way. 

The Three-Stage Labor Journey

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

What Are the Stages of Labor? 

First, a quick primer: During the first stage of labor, you begin to have increasingly strong and frequent contractions as the muscles in your uterus (womb) rhythmically tighten and release. These contractions help stretch, soften, and open, or efface and dilate, your cervix, the narrow passageway between your uterus and vagina, so that a baby can move into the birth canal. 

Once your cervix is fully dilated, you’re onto the second stage of labor: pushing and giving birth to your baby. After that, the third and final stage of labor is delivering the placenta (afterbirth), the organ that provides your developing child with oxygen and nourishment through the umbilical cord during pregnancy.

Below, learn more about what to expect during each stage of labor. 

The First Stage of Labor 

During the first stage of labor, your body prepares to give birth with contractions that help open up your cervix. Typically, this is the longest stage of labor.

On average, it takes about 12–19 hours for your cervix to become fully dilated to 10 centimeters (or about 4 inches). That said, this stage can take anywhere from many hours to days for first-time mothers. There are two phases to the first stage of labor: early labor and active labor. 

Early Labor 

When you begin early labor, also known as the latent phase, you can expect irregular mild to moderate contractions that last about 30–60 seconds every five to 20 minutes. Now is when your cervix—often long, thin, and hard—becomes softer and thinner to stretch to about 6 centimeters (just over 2 1/3 inches).

While every labor journey is different, you may experience: 

  • The beginning of true labor contractions: These could feel like gas-induced discomfort, menstrual cramps, or back pain. If they’re not very strong or are irregular, it might not even seem like you’re “in labor” just yet. Conversely, you could notice they are, in fact, getting stronger and more frequent—which is how you can tell the difference between Braxton-Hicks contractions, or “false” labor pains, and the real deal.
  • Vaginal discharge: Anywhere from a week before until the day you go into labor, you may lose your mucus plug, the protective seal at the opening of your cervix. This comes out as a small amount of discharge that may be clear, pink, or a little bloody.
  • Your water breaking: A trickle or gush of fluid from your vagina could mean the amniotic sac—the fluid-filled pouch that surrounds the fetus during pregnancy—has ruptured.

Most pregnant people spend this time at home. Here’s how to deal with labor pains and any discomfort you may be having: 

  • Rest, walk, repeat. Alternate between resting and moving, and try out different positions to ease discomfort. 
  • Take slow, deep breaths. Try to avoid freezing up when contractions strike and instead breathe through them the best that you can.  
  • Drink up. Make sure to stay hydrated and check in with your healthcare provider about whether you can eat lightly or should be fasting at this time.
  • Try some hydrotherapy. A bath, shower, or dip in a pool can sometimes help you feel better. Check with your healthcare provider first, however, if your water has broken.  
  • Practice self-care. Use aromatherapy, music, and your support system for welcome distractions.

Don’t hesitate to contact your ob-gyn (obstetrician-gynecologist) or obstetric care professional if you think you may be in labor. 

Call your healthcare provider or go to the hospital immediately if:

  • Your fetus is moving less often.
  • You’re getting no relief between contractions and you’re in severe pain.
  • You’re bleeding heavily from your vagina.
  • Your water has broken.

If you show up at the hospital early (meaning your cervix is less than 6 cm dilated), your healthcare professional may encourage you to go home until your contractions are more frequent or stronger.

Active Labor 

When you go into active labor, your contractions become more intense, your cervix continues to open up until it’s fully dilated, and your baby begins to move into the birth canal.

Here’s what to expect: 

  • Intense contractions and a feeling of pressure in your back. During active labor, your contractions will become longer (about 45–90 seconds each), closer together (approximately every three–four minutes), and more painful over the next two–eight hours.
  • Regular check-ins. Upon your arrival, your healthcare professional will give you a physical exam and then check your progress frequently, as often as every two hours or more depending on your stage of labor.
  • Discussing options: Your healthcare professional may talk you through different ways to move the labor process along, such as breaking your water if it hasn't broken already or giving you Pitocin (usually an intravenous flow of oxytocin), which can increase the frequency and/or intensity of your contractions.
  • Help managing pain. At this time, you can also talk to your healthcare provider about an epidural (an injection of anesthesia into your lower back) or other pain medication.
  • A tough transition. The last part of the active phase of labor, transition, may be the shortest but most intense as your cervix stretches from 8 to 10 centimeters to become completely dilated. You can expect strong contractions every two–three minutes lasting 60–90 seconds. You may feel the drive to bear down or push. Your healthcare professional will help you determine when to actively push.

The Second Stage of Labor 

During the second stage of labor, you bring your baby into the world. You might feel increased pressure on your rectum and the urge to push—which is good, because now’s the time to do just that.

This stage can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. It tends to take longer for your first baby or if you've had an epidural.

Here’s what comes next: 

  • Pushing: Your healthcare professional will coach you to push at the peaks of the waves of contractions and rest between them. This is really hard work—so you may need to lean on your partner or a support person to help you stay focused.
  • Choosing a birth position: People give birth in many different positions, including while squatting, sitting, kneeling, or lying down. The position likely depends on the guidance you receive from your obstetrician or midwife.
  • Crowning: This is when the top of your baby's head appears. As soon as your baby’s head fully emerges, the rest of your baby will soon follow, supported by your healthcare provider. 
  • Sometimes, an episiotomy, forceps, or a vacuum device is needed to provide extra help: Episiotomy (a small cut to lengthen your vaginal opening) is not routinely performed or recommended anymore except for special circumstances. Healthcare providers might also use forceps or suction, if necessary, to help your baby exit the birth canal.
  • Cutting the cord: After your baby comes out, it’s time to cut the umbilical cord. If you or your partner would like to be the one to do this, let your healthcare professional know and they’ll guide you through it.

The Third Stage of Labor 

After you’ve given birth, there’s just one last step—delivering the placenta. The third stage of labor is the shortest and usually takes about five to 30 minutes. 

Here’s what you may experience: 

  • Chills and trembling: In the wake of childbirth, it’s not unusual to get the chills or to tremble. 
  • Delivery of the placenta: Next, the placenta detaches from the wall of your uterus and comes out of your vagina. It may do this on its own, or you may need to give another push. Your ob-gyn will let you know and may also massage your uterus to help it along. 
  • Aftercare: At this time, your healthcare provider might also give you medication to halt bleeding and stitch any tears you may have.
  • Family time: Now’s the best part. Get some much-needed rest as your medical team gives your child their first exam. Then, say hello for the first time, start breastfeeding if you’d like, and begin bonding with the newest member of your family.

A Word From Verywell 

The time leading up to childbirth can be filled with a slew of different emotions, from excitement, anxiety, and joy to exhaustion, impatience, and fear.

Whether you’re preparing to give birth or want to be as supportive as possible to your partner or loved one, knowing the three stages of labor and coming up with a game plan for each can help give you some peace of mind. You’ve got quite the journey ahead, but it’s well worth the struggle.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lauren Krouse
Lauren Krouse is a journalist especially interested in covering women’s health, mental health, and social determinants of health. Her work appears in Women's Health, Prevention, and Self, among other publications.