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What to Expect During the Stages and Phases of Childbirth

Are you nearing the end of your pregnancy?  

As you plan for delivery, it’s normal not to know what to expect. Childbirth is a life-changing event and a unique journey for every expectant parent, even from one pregnancy to the next.

You might be excited about your baby’s arrival but also nervous about what will happen during birth. Rest assured that your health care team will help you every step of the way.

Read on as we delve into labor and vaginal childbirth's different stages and phases, as well as the options available to help you during the birthing process.

What is dilation? 

Before moving into the stages of labor, it’s important to understand how your cervix, the narrow part of the uterus that connects to the vagina (birth canal), changes during labor and childbirth. 

Most of the time, your cervix is a small, tightly closed hole. During labor, however, contractions of the uterus put pressure on the cervical canal and cause it to open and dilate. 

“Dilation refers to the cervix opening to allow your baby to pass through the birth canal (vagina),” said Jenny Pearson, RNC-OB, a childbirth educator with Banner Children’s. “It’s measured in centimeters with a digital exam by your health care team.”

Here’s what cervix dilation looks like when compared with everyday foods:

1 cm dilated: blueberry
2 cm dilated: cherry
4 cm dilated: lime
6 cm dilated: lemon
8 cm dilated: orange
10 cm dilated (full dilation): grapefruit

What are the different stages and phases of labor?

The three stages of labor and childbirth include the following:

  • Stage 1: Labor (early labor, active labor and transition)
  • Stage 2: Pushing and delivery of the baby
  • Stage 3: Delivery of the placenta

Stage 1: Labor

The journey of childbirth begins with labor and includes three phases: early labor, active labor and transition.

Phase 1: Early labor

“The first phase of labor begins when your contractions are no longer warm-up contractions (also known as Braxton Hicks) and cause your cervical dilation,” Pearson said. 

During this phase, you may have irregular contractions that help your cervix start dilating (thin and open). These contractions might be mild, resembling period cramps, and can come and go for several hours or days. 

“Typically, early labor can take anywhere from six to 12 hours, but it is completely different for every person,” Pearson. “Resting and conserving your energy is important during this time.”

If your water breaks or you notice a thick discharge (mucus plug), these are also signs that your body is starting early labor. If you think your water has broken, head to the hospital or birthing center.

Phase 2: Active labor

During active labor, your cervix dilates to about 6 cm to 8 cm and labor becomes more intense. 

“This is when your contractions become more regular, stronger and closer together,” Pearson said. “Contractions last around 45 to 60 seconds and come about three to five minutes apart.”

If you want an epidural, this is the best time to do it.

Phase 3: Transitional labor

The transition phase is when you go from 8 cm to fully dilated (10 cm), and it’s often the most challenging and intense stage of labor. The good news is that it’s also generally the shortest phase, lasting between 60 minutes to 90 minutes.

At this stage, it’s usually too late to ask for an epidural.

Stage 2: Time to push and deliver your baby

Once your cervix is fully dilated (opened), you’ll move to the pushing stage. This is the time when you actively participate in bringing your baby into the world.

“If you don’t have an epidural, you will feel a great urge to push when it is time,” Pearson said. “Even with an epidural, you can feel a great deal of pressure when you are fully dilated.”

Your health care provider will guide you on how to push effectively to help your baby move through the birth canal. 

Know that meeting your little one may take some time. Trust in your body and your health care team, as they will do their best to ensure a safe and smooth delivery.

Stage 3: The placenta delivery

After your baby is born, the third stage begins. The placenta, the organ that provides nutrients and oxygen to your baby during pregnancy, will separate from the wall of the uterus and come down the birth canal.

You will experience more (but gentler) contractions that will help push it out. Contractions begin about five to 10 minutes after delivery. Your provider may ask you to push again.

Once the placenta is delivered, the birthing process is complete.

Tips for a positive birthing experience

The birthing experience can be both exciting and challenging. Here are some tips to help you prepare and manage the process:

  • Educate yourself: Attend childbirth classes, read books and talk to your provider to understand how the birthing process works. Knowing what to expect can reduce anxiety and give you more confidence.
  • Use pain management options: These can help you stay calm and focused during labor. Try deep breathing, meditation or visualization, hot/cold packs or pain medications (if your provider approves). 
  • Make the birth room comfortable: Bring items that provide you comfort, such as aromatherapy, favorite pillows and blankets, music or massage tools.
  • Move and change positions: Switching positions frequently may ease discomfort and promote progress: hands and knees, slow dancing, squatting, lunging, rocking chair, birthing ball and side-lying are just a few options. You may also be able to go for short walks with a wireless fetal monitor.
  • Trust your body: Understand that your body is designed to give birth and trust its abilities. 
  • Communicate with your birth team: Be open about your needs and concerns. They are there to support you and can offer guidance throughout the process.
  • Be flexible: Remember that birth is unpredictable and plans may need to change. Stay open to adjustments while keeping your and your baby’s safety as the top priority.

Takeaway: Embrace the journey

Childbirth is an extraordinary journey filled with joy, anticipation and sometimes unexpected challenges. 

Remember that each birth experience is unique, and there is no right or wrong way to give birth. The most important thing is to feel supported, informed and empowered throughout the process.

If you have questions, talk to your provider or find a Banner Health specialist near you.

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