What are the Stages of LaborAt its simplest, labor isn’t a difficult process.  Your baby leaves the womb, travels downward, and enters the world, changing your world forever.  However, that’s the simple version.  In reality, labor occurs in three specific stages.  Ideally, these stages flow from one to the next, but that isn’t always the case.  Sometimes babies don’t drop, or sometimes they’re facing the wrong way.  However knowing the stages of labor is crucial to knowing if things are progressing as they should or if something’s amiss.  Let’s take a look at how normal labor progresses and demystify childbirth.

The Baby Drops
This term is a bit misleading as your baby isn’t actually dropping.  He or she is simply moving down in preparation to travel through the birth canal.  This “drop” may actually be a relief for some women who felt great pressure from the baby’s head pressing against the stomach and ribcage.  And while some babies drop early, others stubbornly wait until the last moments.  A few may even refuse to drop all together!  However, when your baby drops you’ll most likely feel greater pressure in your lower abdominal area; this will most likely result in even more frequent trips to the bathroom.

Your Water Breaks
Water, again, is a misleading term.  It isn’t water at all but amniotic fluid. And unlike many movie depictions, it may not be a gush but more of a trickle.  And be prepared: it will be warm.  Once your water breaks, contractions typically begin in earnest.  If you believe your water breaks too early, it’s imperative to see your OB or midwife.  Infection could set in if your water breaks and you don’t soon afterwards go into labor.

Don’t be surprised if you also see a clot-like plug.  Termed the “bloody show”, this membrane dislodges as a signal that your little one is ready to make an entrance.

Stage One:  Early and Active Labor
Stage one consists of a lot of labor.  For nine months your cervix has been closed to protect the baby.  Now it’s ready to open and allow the baby to embark on his or her journey into the world.  However in order to open, the muscles surrounding the cervix need to pull it to coax it open.  Hence all the contractions.  In early labor the cervix thins and begins to dilate.  In active labor the contractions become more intense (imagine your body saying “That’s it! It’s opening!  Harder this time—it’s almost there!).  You’ll begin to notice a pattern and your partner should be timing the contractions to note how far apart they are.  Active labor is also referred to as transition: your body is transitioning to aid the baby.  It will soon be time to push.

Stage Two:  Baby’s Birth
Stage two occurs when your cervix fully dilates.  Your OB or midwife will confirm full dilation with a quick internal exam (don’t worry—their fingers are nothing compared to the size of your baby).    You’ll feel the urge to push.  Stage two ends with the birth of your little one.  Most women experience a rollercoaster of emotions during this stage:  all of them are normal.  Whether you feel giddy, energetic, relieved, nervous, excited, or plain exhausted just know that any or all of them are just par for the course.

Stage Three: The Placenta
Wait! You’re not done yet.  After the birth of your baby, you’ll need to deliver the placenta.  OBs typically pull the placenta out after the baby is safely delivered.  However, you can wait and allow the placenta to exit or hasten its exit by pushing.  After giving birth, the uterus begins to contract and will expel the placenta; this process typically takes around ten minutes.  The choice is yours.

There you have it: a succinct step guide to the labor stages.  Just remember: childbirth isn’t always by the books.  Trust your instincts and listen to your body.  Advocate for yourself and embrace your own process of labor and its stages.  Understanding the process makes it less scary and empowers you with the knowledge of what’s happening to your body.  Use this knowledge to visualize a safe, swift labor and delivery.