Childbirth Labor

Stages of Labor

by Patricia Hughes

Knowing what to expect in labor helps reduce fear and stress. There are three stages of labor and delivery. All women go through these stages, but each at her own pace. Some move quickly through the stages. Others linger in one stage before moving on to the next. The time it takes will vary from woman to woman. The average length of a first time labor is between ten and twenty hours. Subsequent labors are often faster, but not always.  
The First Stage
The first stage of labor breaks down into three parts, early, active and transition phases. In early labor, you may not be sure if you are actually in labor. Contractions may be irregular in the beginning, with more than ten minutes between contractions. The pain isn’t too intense and you may not be sure if these are real contractions. Gradually, the pains get longer and stronger, indicating real labor.  
Most women cope well in early labor. Most remain at home during this phase. Try to lie down and rest during this time. You will need your energy later. Go about your normal routine as long as you can, but don’t over do it. Wait until your contractions get closer together to start timing them. You will get stressed out if you start timing too soon. It’s important to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated during this phase. 
Once the contractions get stronger and you can’t talk through them, this is a sign you are entering active labor. Your contractions will get more frequent and stronger. Ask your doctor or midwife the protocol for labor in advance. Some want you to call the office, while other will have you go right to the hospital at a predetermined time. A common rule of thumb is to leave for the hospital when your contractions are five minutes apart, last for one minute each and stay that way for an hour. 
Throughout active labor, your contractions will gradually get closer together and stronger. They will gradually become about two or three minutes apart and much more intense. During this phase, you will need to use the breathing and relaxation techniques learned in your childbirth preparation classes. Try relaxation, breathing, being in a tub, massage and changing positions. Many women ask for pain relief during this phase. 
When you reach 8 to 10 centimeters, you will be in what’s called the transition phase. This is the most intense phase of labor. The contractions are very strong and close together. During this phase, many women begin to feel they can’t go on. This is where you need your coach to help you stay focused. You may feel nauseated and start shaking. This phase ends when you are fully dilated and feel the need to push. 
The Second Stage
The second stage of labor is when your baby is born. Some women find this stage easier than the first stage. Pushing can help relieve the intense pressure of the transition phase. Depending on your health care provider, you will be told when to push or will be told to push with the urge. The baby gradually moves down the birth canal. 
When the top of the head is visible, you are said to be crowning. You may experience an intense burning, if you are having a natural birth. This is often referred to as the “ring of fire.” When the baby’s head is born, the doctor will suction the nose and mouth. The shoulders are born one at a time, followed by the rest of the body. This stage ends when the baby is born. This stage can last anywhere from twenty minutes to a few hours. 
The doctor will place the baby on a blanket on your stomach. They will dry the baby and wrap him in a warm blanket. Your husband or partner may get to cut the umbilical cord. You will finally get to meet your new baby. 
The Third Stage
he third stage is when the placenta is delivered. This generally takes only a few minutes and one push, once the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus. The doctor will inspect the placenta to be sure no pieces are missing. The nurses will massage your uterus to help it shrink and begin to return to it’s original shape. Breastfeeding helps this process. This can feel like strong menstrual cramps. Ask for pain relief medicine if you are in pain.  
If you had an episiotomy or tearing, your doctor will stitch you at this point. If you didn’t have the epidural, a local anesthetic may be given prior to stitching. Your baby will be examined. She may be given the vitamin K shot and eye drops at this time. You can ask for these to be delayed until you’ve had a chance to bond.
Patricia Hughes is a freelance writer and mother of four. Patricia has a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from Florida Atlantic University. She has written extensively on pregnancy, childbirth, parenting and breastfeeding. In addition, she has written about home décor and travel.

No part of this article may be copied or reproduced in any form without the express permission of More4Kids Inc © 2006

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