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Having Your Baby: The Labor Process


What is the labor process?

The labor process is a series of 3 stages that your body goes through to deliver your baby. It is not known for sure what causes labor to begin. Hormones made by you and your baby and changes in your uterus may help labor to start. Labor usually starts 2 weeks before or after your due date. Most women do not have their baby exactly on their due date.

What is the first stage of labor?

The first stage of labor includes early and active labor. Your uterus will contract to prepare your cervix for delivery and to push your baby out of the birth canal. Your cervix will dilate (widen) and efface (soften and become thinner). Your contractions may last from 30 to 60 seconds. The contractions usually start in the back and move to the front. You may also have a pink, clear, or slightly bloody discharge called bloody show. Bloody show is caused by the movement of a mucus plug from your cervix. During pregnancy the mucus plug blocks your cervix to prevent it from opening

  • Early labor may last for several hours. You will most likely be at home during early labor. Rest as much as possible while you are at home. Have someone rub your back. It may be helpful to place ice packs on your lower back. Go for a short walk if you are able. Drink water and suck on ice chips. Ask your healthcare provider if you can eat during early labor.
  • Active labor is when your contractions will get stronger, last longer, and happen more frequently. Your healthcare provider will tell you when to go to the hospital or birthing center. You may have chills or shakiness as you move from this stage to the second stage of labor.

How will I know when I am in active labor?

Your contractions become more frequent, last longer, and become more intense and painful. Time your contractions from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next. Write this information down for 1 hour. Your healthcare provider will tell you how many minutes apart the contractions should be before you need to go to the hospital or birthing center.

What is the second stage of labor?

Your cervix will be completely dilated to 10 centimeters and your baby will be ready to be born. The second stage of labor usually lasts 20 minutes to 2 hours. You may feel pressure on your rectum and the urge to push. This pressure is caused by the movement of your baby's head down the birth canal. Your healthcare provider will tell you when to push, and guide your baby out of the birth canal. After your baby is born, the umbilical cord will be cut.

What is the third stage of labor?

The placenta (afterbirth) is delivered during this stage. After you give birth, your uterus will continue to contract to help push out the placenta. These contractions will begin 5 to 30 minutes after you give birth. Your healthcare provider will tell you when to push. You may have chills or shakiness during this stage.

How can I manage pain while I am in labor?

Pain can be managed naturally or with medicines. You can naturally manage pain by using relaxation methods and controlled breathing. There are different types of medicines that can be used to relieve pain while you are in labor. These medicines may be given through an IV or an epidural (thin catheter in your lower back). Talk with your healthcare about your options for pain medicines if you choose to use them. Tell your provider if you prefer not to have any pain control medicines during labor.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have vaginal spotting or bleeding.
  • Your water broke or you feel warm water gushing or trickling from your vagina.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have more than 5 contractions in 1 hour.
  • You have bloody mucus or show.
  • You notice any changes in your baby's movements.
  • You have abdominal cramps, pressure, or tightening.
  • You have a change in vaginal discharge.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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