What Are The Stages of Labor?

5 min read

Birth – how exciting! 

As you prepare to meet your baby, you may be wondering just what’s going on inside your body, or what is going to happen. 

During labor and birth, your body goes through all sorts of shifts and changes to prepare for what most people describe as one of the most intense moments of their lives. 

Did you know that labor is divided into four stages? 

Even within these four stages, they are divided into other phases. Let’s take a look at just what these stages are, and what happens during them. 

Prelabor

While this technically isn’t one of the four stages, we figured you may want a heads up about prelabor.

Prelabor typically starts in the weeks leading up to labor. Here are some signs you may be getting closer to going into labor:

  • A big increases or decreases in energy
  • Feeling the baby drop into your pelvis, called “lightening”
  • Braxton hicks contractions, which are irregular practice contractions
  • Bloody show. This is when the mucus plug that sealed your cervix comes out, often a few days before labor begins. It is usually thick and pink or blood streaked, but it’s not always noticeable

The First Stage

Made up of three phases, the first stage is usually the longest stage of labor. In the first stage, your body is gearing and getting ready to push your baby out!

Early Labor

During early labor you may be able to continue on with household chores, errands, and preparing for baby. Contractions are typically very light and be anywhere from five to twenty minutes apart – or more. 

Early labor lasts until your cervix is four centimeters dilated.

Unless otherwise advised by your provider, you most likely can stay home during this phase. 

We know it’s exciting, but try your best to get some rest, stay hydrated, and eat light meals when you can. As contractions pick up, you can start timing them to know when to move the place you’re planning on birthing.

Active Labor

This is where things really start picking up. Active labor is the second phase of the first stage of labor. 

Contractions will typically last up to sixty seconds, and be between four to five minutes apart. Active labor continues until you are seven centimeters dilated.

During this phase you may begin to withdraw into your own world. It’s important to still stay hydrated, use the bathroom, and have someone continue to track contractions if you haven’t gone to the hospital, birth center, or called your midwife yet.

If birthing outside of the home, you typically leave to your place of birth towards the end of active labor. If you’re hoping to have an epidural or use another form of pain management, you may be advised to come sooner. 

It’s usually helpful in this phase to switch positions periodically, and even try gentle movement like walking and swaying if you’re able to. This can help speed up labor.

This is when you should call your doula to come if you have one (but try to give them a heads up when you’re in early labor if you can).

Transition Phase

For many birthing people, this is the shortest, yet most difficult part of labor. 

Contractions may last up to a minute, and be anywhere from two to three minutes apart. It’s not uncommon to feel like contractions are “right on top of each other” and like you can’t get a break. 

As your body adjusts to the change in hormones and intensity, some people experience shaking and vomiting during this phase. That probably just means that you’re getting closer to meeting your baby! It’s important for your support team to continue helping to keep you hydrated, and use the tools you have to help manage the intensity and keep you as comfortable as possible.

This phase continues until your cervix is fully dilated at ten centimeters, and 100% effaced or thinned. You may even get a break to rest after transition before your body is ready to start pushing.

Second Stage: Time to Push

You and your body have been working hard, possibly the hardest it’s ever worked. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, because it’s time to push!

During this stage, your body continues to have contractions that push your baby down the birth canal. Contractions may be up to four minutes apart.

A lot of birthing people find relief during the pushing phase. Part of this is because it’s more measurable – you can actually see your baby dropping down and starting to crown.

At the end of this stage, you’ll have your baby (or babies)!

Third Stage: Placenta

After you birth your baby, you still have a little more work to do with the birth of your placenta.

This stage lasts about five to thirty minutes, sometimes up to an hour. Birthing your placenta is much easier than a baby because it doesn’t have bones or limbs.

Fourth Stage

The fourth stage is the immediate postpartum period two to three hours after birth.

During this stage your uterus continues to contract to help your body expel and residual birth materials. If you’re planning on body feeding, this is most likely the time where that will be initiated. 

If you’ve had any tears, or you or baby need immediate aftercare, these things will be attended to in the fourth stage. 

Birth Time!

Of course, you’re naturally curious about how long each stage lasts and what you can expect from them. 

While I can sit here and give you estimates and averages, the truth of the matter is that it depends on each person, and each birth.

Typically each subsequent birth you’ve had will be shorter than the last, but there are so many variables that can affect how long you’re in labor. 

Even knowing average labor times doesn’t necessarily mean you know what to expect. Shorter does not always equal easier, especially since birth can feel outside of space and time.

Good luck, you got this!

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