Most moms who are newly pregnant might think of going into labor as the end-game. After all, they spend the entire pregnancy waiting for those first twinges of contractions to signal the beginning of the end!
But just because a mom starts feeling cramping doesn’t mean the baby’s birth will come anytime soon. Because in addition to the nine months of waiting, there are also the stages of labor to work through before a mom can hold her brand new baby and be congratulated for a job well-done.
Overall, there are three main stages of labor: the first, second, and third.
The first stage involves everything that comes before being fully dilated, the second stage is from 10 centimeters dilated until the baby’s arrival, and the third stage revolves around the placenta’s exit.
But within each stage, there are different parts, and for mamas who haven’t experienced it before, it can be confusing to even know what’s going on at any given moment.
In the first stage, the body is getting everything ready. In the second stage, the baby actually comes, but in the third stage, the placenta exits and moms are near the finish line!
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than three easy steps: here are 20 things to expect throughout the different stages of labor.
20 Major Nesting Begins
While this "symptom" might be a little less scientific than the rest, it's still something that most expecting moms experience. Whether they feel the need to clean everything or get the urge to go back into the nursery and re-do everything they've already done, that's one of the signs that labor is creeping up fast!
Nesting is one of those biological things that come out differently for each mama, but it's sort of like her built-in system telling her to get everything just right before the baby makes its entrance. It might take up a lot of energy, but at this point, a mama will be full of it!
19 Pain-Free Braxton Hicks
Another way that a woman’s body begins to prepare for labor before it begins is through Braxton Hicks contractions. These are like fake contractions and they mimic real contractions. Essentially, they’re a contracting of the uterus but without any pain. So it’s actually flexing the muscles that will be involved in real labor, except that mamas can start having them early on in the pregnancy and they don’t exactly mean that labor is imminent.
In fact, Braxton Hicks contractions can even start as early as about seven weeks along, according to the APA, but most moms don’t feel them at that point.
18 The Baby Dropping Low
Another precursor to “actual” labor is the baby getting into a better position for the exit. If you’ve been feeling little feet in your ribs (or lungs!) for the last few weeks or months, the baby’s next step will hopefully provide a bit of relief! Toward the end of the pregnancy, the baby usually “drops,” getting into place, head down, preparing to exit.
It doesn’t happen for every mama, but many will notice when it’s a little bit easier to breathe and the baby seems to be as anxious to arrive into the outside world as their mama is to meet them.
17 A Few False Starts
Although Braxton Hicks contractions are relatively common, lots of mamas aren’t sure whether they’re the real deal or not. And that’s further complicated by the fact that labor can actually stop and start multiple times before the real thing happens. Many moms find that they start to experience seemingly regular contractions, and then everything stops for hours or even days at a time.
Part of it is biology—your body might not be truly ready—and the other part is how the mom herself is feeling. If she starts freaking out at the onset of contractions, those stress signals can actually inhibit her labor’s progress. Basically, the fight-or-flight instinct applies to childbirth, so it’s possible a mama’s feelings can affect what happens next.
16 Some Gross Physical Symptoms
For a lot of mamas, one of the earliest symptoms that labor is about to begin is that they lose their mucus plug. The mucus plug is like a “stopper” in a mama’s cervix, sort of holding the exit shut and protecting against germs and anything else that shouldn’t be coming in.
So at the end of pregnancy, when labor is about to start, the mucus plug might come out on its own right before all the action starts. Plenty of moms don’t notice it happening, and for others, it doesn’t happen until a lot later, but it can also be an early indicator of things progressing.
15 A Sore Back In Early Labor
Although there’s that common movie trope about women going into labor when their water breaks, it’s not always that dramatic for moms off-screen. Sure, many moms go into labor when their water breaks (more on that later), but many others just start feeling really uncomfortable. Well, more uncomfortable than they already were at 40-plus weeks pregnant!
Back labor is one of the most common first steps in actual labor, and for some moms, it just feels like they’re sore. It’s more common to have a bit of back pain than it is to truly feel contractions at this point — but that is what the pain actually is: contractions starting up!
14 Belly Cramps In Early Labor
For moms who have had Braxton Hicks contractions, belly cramps probably aren’t foreign. After all, you can sometimes watch the belly tense up and the muscles contract, even with Braxton Hicks. So at this stage, more belly cramps tend to begin.
Moms might feel like they’re having regular period cramps, or it could just feel like a tightening across the front of their bellies. Either way, this is a sign that contractions are ramping up and things are really happening! It might be uncomfortable, but it also isn’t necessarily painful at this point. And for most moms, there’s enough time to start preparing to get to the hospital or birth center.
13 Water Often Breaks In Early Labor
Although not every mom’s labor begins with her water breaking, it is pretty common. After all, the pressure of the contractions is basically what causes the amniotic sac to rupture. But it doesn’t mean that the water will all suddenly gush out—and it probably won’t happen without warning when you’re out and about like most mamas worry over!
In general, there’s at least a bit of warning before the water breaks — maybe some back pain or contractions starting up. But for most moms, even after their water breaks, it could still be hours before labor progresses. It will also depend on your healthcare provider whether they want you to come in immediately after your water breaks.
12 Early Labor Means Irregular Contractions
One of the things that are irritating to many moms about the first stage of labor is that contractions don’t become regular. Mamas get the feeling that “this is it,” and then contractions aren’t regular enough to time, so it seems like nothing’s happening after all.
But it takes some time for contractions to ramp up and become regular. It also depends on the individual woman as to how her contractions change over time. Personally, mine weren’t spaced exactly the same amount of time apart, even toward the end of active labor and before the baby actually came. Overall, results may vary!
11 Contractions Can Last A Minute In Active Labor
The general consensus is that contractions aren’t the “real deal” until they’re happening regularly and for about the same duration. The duration can vary, though, with contractions lasting up to about a minute in the first stage of labor.
Lots of moms use apps to time their contractions, but you can also count to yourself (or have someone else do it) to keep track of how regular things are. Above all, though, it helps to listen to your intuition. When I had my second kiddo, my contractions weren’t spaced too close together and they weren’t exactly regular, but it turned out I didn’t have as much time as my doula thought to get to the hospital before they got intense!
10 More Dilation During Active Labor
Most moms recognize the purpose of early labor, and that’s to get the cervix dilated. The cervix is where your baby makes their exit so, naturally, it needs to be as wide open as possible! And the measurements range from zero to 10 centimeters, 10 being the optimum for actually getting the baby out.
Many moms will enter the actual first stage of labor already a few centimeters dilated. And, it’s not uncommon to walk around for a few weeks at one or two centimeters dilated, even if it’s your first child! But in this stage of labor, most mamas are dilating to between four and seven centimeters.
9 Transition Comes On Strong
After dealing with contractions for anywhere from a couple of hours to a day or two, most mamas are getting close to the most important part of labor! The transition is toward the end of the first stage of labor where mamas feel like the end is near. This is the point of most movies about laboring mamas where they start to scream at their husbands for the guys’ role in making the babies!
Transitioning feels super intense, and for mamas who don’t have the luxury of pain-free labor, it’s often the time when they start to feel like they just can’t do it anymore. But relax, because that’s just the hormones talking: this is the hardest part to get through, but it’s also the briefest.
8 Transition Is Short But Tough
Transitioning is typically the shortest stage, but it is tough. Many moms will feel like they can’t do it anymore, whether because they’re tired or because they feel pain, but once they get to the other side, it’s not long before the baby will make its entrance.
Transition can be accompanied by some yucky symptoms though. According to the APA, you might experience nausea, vomiting, chills, or even flashes during transition. Fortunately, not every woman will have those symptoms (I definitely didn’t!), but it’s nice to know what to expect so that you don’t panic if one or all of those things happen.
7 Feeling Like It’s Time
For a lot of moms who have pain relief during labor, they might not even realize when it’s time to push! Hence all the movie scenes where the moms are swearing they aren’t ready while the nurses prepare them and tell them when to push.
The thing is, most women will feel the urge to push after transition — it’s what nature intends, after all. In some cases, your nurses, doctor, or midwives might tell you not to push for some reason, but most of the time, when a mama feels like she needs to, that means the birth is imminent.
6 The Cervix Becomes Bagel-Sized
At this point in the second stage of labor, when a mama feels the urge to push, it’s usually because she’s completely dilated and ready to go. However, most hospitals will want to check the cervix before “letting” a mom start pushing, just to make sure it’s all clear for the baby to exit.
By the time she’s ready to push, the cervix is dilated to about the width of a bagel — big enough for the baby’s head to exit without much trouble. Of course, it might not feel that way, but being fully dilated is what prepares moms to welcome their babies, so you’re almost there!
5 Crowning Comes Along
At this stage, a mom is likely working on pushing her baby out. It can take up to a few hours of pushing for some babies to work their way out, so there’s a whole lot of variation in the length of time between full dilation and the next step.
But once a mom begins pushing, the next part of labor is crowning — when the baby’s head actually begins to present. For moms who don’t have an epidural (and those whose epidurals are wearing off!), they might feel itchiness, burning, or even a stretching feeling when the baby crowns. It’s all normal, albeit uncomfortable!
4 The Baby Is Here!
The good news is, directly after the baby crowns, the rest of him will exit the birth canal, too! At this point, whatever pain a mama was feeling seems to magically disappear. She’s going to be holding her baby in her arms and looking into their eyes, and that’s the magic moment everything has been building up to.
Of course, that doesn’t mean time stands still, as your birth attendants are most likely still at the foot of your bed waiting for the next stage of labor to commence! Because although the baby has arrived, labor is not exactly over yet.
3 The Placenta Arrives, Too
The third stage of labor only happens after the baby has arrived. And while it seems silly to dedicate an entire “stage” of labor to stuff that has nothing to do with the baby, it’s just a part of the process — and one that’s often overlooked.
After the baby arrives, the placenta should come soon after. Experts often say it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour for the placenta to exit on its own, but it depends on a lot of unpredictable factors. Basically, the placenta coming out is the start of the third stage of labor, whenever it happens.
2 Mom’s Still Feeling Cramps
After the placenta is out, you might think everything is over and done with (unless you need some downstairs repairs). But at this point, your body still has a lot going on, including cramping. Because contractions are the same thing as menstrual cramps—your body’s muscles flexing to get “stuff” out of the uterus—you’ll continue feeling them as your uterus shrinks back to its pre-baby size.
Also at this point, your nurses or birth support people might start massaging your belly to help with the process. And if you start nursing your baby, you’ll likely feel a lot of cramps, too, as that’s nature’s way of giving you the strength that encourages contractions for healing the uterus.
1 Hormones Are Still Changing
Birth is a total rush, that’s for sure! But just because the main event is over, that doesn’t mean a mom’s body will immediately return to baseline. While there’s often a misconception that women will go back to “normal” directly after the baby pops out, it’s just not the case.
Post-birth, mamas have a ton of hormones coursing through them, and whether they breastfeed or not can impact those hormones, too. Suffice it to say, it could be weeks or months until a mama is feeling like herself again, even though she’ll never really be “herself” the same way again — because now she’s a mom!
Source: The AP Association