Labor: An Overview

[Adapted from The Joy of Pregnancy, by Tori Kropp, R.N. Copyright © 2008, used by permission of The Harvard Common Press.]

For 75 percent of women giving birth for the first time, labor lasts between 14 and 24 hours (subsequent labors tend to be significantly shorter). Now, before you get nervous about this, let's see how that time breaks down into stages and phases. Keep in mind that the times shown here apply to most women, but not all. One in four will have a shorter or longer labor.

First Stage: Effacement and Dilation

13 to 21 hours. The cervix fully effaces and dilates to 10 centimeters, over the course of several phases:

  • Early or latent phase, 8 to 12 hours. The cervix reaches full effacement and 3 centimeters' dilation.
  • Active phase, 4 to 6 hours. The cervix reaches from 3 to 7 centimeters' dilation.
  • Transition phase, 1 to 3 hours. It widens further, from 7 to 10 centimeters' dilation.

Second Stage: Pushing

1 to 3 hours. The baby is pushed through the birth canal. This stage ends in birth. Larger babies generally take longer to push out than smaller babies.

Third Stage: Birth of the Placenta

5 to 20 minutes. This is generally not difficult and is minimally uncomfortable.

Fourth Stage: Immediate Postpartum

2 hours. During this time, the mom is carefully observed to be sure her uterus is contracting, her bleeding is under control, and she is getting attached to her baby. This is a time for her to rest, eat and drink as she wishes, and breastfeed her baby.

Tori's Tip: Prepare for a Longish Labor...

...and be pleasantly surprised if it is shorter, which it very well may be.

If You Become Uncomfortable

In the daytime, you might do any of these things:

  • Eat lightly.
  • Pack your bag for the hospital or birth center.
  • Go for a walk. Do a couple of errands, perhaps to arrange for the care of your pets. Being upright and walking helps to keep contractions coming. Don't exhaust yourself, though.
  • Go see a movie.

With any of these activities, I suggest including your partner. If he is at work, you might call him as soon as you suspect this is the big day, or you might wait until the signs of labor are more obvious. Couples tell me lovely stories of the things they did together during early labor.

If it is nighttime, try these suggestions:

  • Sleep, if possible. You may not be sleeping all that much now, anyway, but any amount of sleep you can catch is good - even catnaps.
  • Take a warm bath or shower.
  • Read or watch TV. Keep the lights low, so that you may doze some.

Being as well rested as possible will help immensely in labor.

During early labor, you may be quite uncomfortable at times, but you will cope better with the strong contractions of active labor if you don't feel as though you have already been laboring for hours. Put off using your breathing techniques and other labor coping tools and support measures until you really need them. Focusing too much on the mild contractions of early labor can tire you, your partner, and any other support people you have with you.