What Does Labor and Giving Birth Feel Like?

Medically Reviewed on 9/7/2021

Stages of labor and giving birth

There are three stages of labor you'll progress through during and after a vaginal delivery.
There are three stages of labor you'll progress through during and after a vaginal delivery.

One of the scariest parts of giving birth is not knowing what to expect when it comes time to deliver your baby. Everyone's experience is unique, so your childbirth story will probably be different from that of your friends. Even though there's no way to know exactly how your labor will progress, understanding what's happening with your body may help you feel better prepared.

While no two women will have the same experience, there are three stages of labor you'll progress through during and after a vaginal delivery.

Stage 1

Stage one covers everything from prelabor until you're fully dilated and ready to push. During this stage, your contractions can range from very mild to very intense. Your cervix will start to ripen at the start of stage 1 and by the end will be dilated to 10 centimeters. There are three parts to stage 1, including:

Early labor. This is the start of labor, but you may not even realize it. Your cervix will start to ripen so it can open. You may feel mild, irregular contractions. This stage can last for many hours or even days. Thankfully, this is the least intense phase of labor. You may notice some bloody mucus or discharge from your vagina. This is called bloody show and is a sign your cervix is getting ready for birth.

You should call your doctor or midwife when you think you're in prelabor. You probably won't need to go to the birthing center yet, but your doctor can tell you when to come in and what to do in the meantime. During this phase, you should try to stay as calm and comfortable as possible. Some things you may want to do include:

  • Try walking around and moving.
  • Sleep if your labor begins at night.
  • Eat some light snacks such as toast or a banana if you feel like it.
  • Drink fluids such as water or sports drinks.
  • Practice relaxation and breathing exercises.
  • Take a warm shower.
  • Bounce on an exercise ball.

Active labor. Once you're dilated to six centimeters, you're in active labor. You will probably be in the hospital or birthing center. During this phase, your cervix will dilate to eight centimeters. Your contractions will become stronger and more painful. They will last about 45 seconds and will be around three minutes apart.

This phase usually lasts four to eight hours. If your water hasn't broken yet, it may now. If you want an epidural or other anesthesia, you'll be able to get it at this time. During this phase, you might want to:

  • Walk around in the hallways.
  • Try to relax between contractions.
  • Give a copy of your birth plan to the hospital staff if they don't have it.
  • Drink liquids but don't eat solid food.
  • Go to the bathroom often to make room for your baby to move into the birth canal.
  • Start pain medicine if you're using it.
  • Tell your nurse if you feel the need to push, but don't start pushing until you've been examined.

Transition. This is the most painful and difficult phase of labor. Your contractions will be intense, lasting 60 to 90 seconds, and will come close together. This phase usually lasts 15 minutes to an hour. You may feel a lot of pressure in your lower back and rectum. You may also feel an urge to push or bear down. Let your nurse or doctor know if you do. At the end of this phase, you'll be 10 centimeters dilated and ready to deliver your baby.

Stage 2

Once your cervix is fully dilated, your doctor or midwife will support you as you start pushing. You will probably feel an overwhelming urge to push as well as a lot of rectal pressure. You'll still feel contractions, though they may not be as intense. This is often referred to as the pushing stage. If your progress has stalled or you're uncomfortable, you may want to move into a different pushing position. When your baby's head is visible at the opening of the vagina, it's called crowning. You may feel a stretching, tingling, or burning sensation when this happens. This stage can last from 20 minutes to two hours. It's usually longer for first pregnancies.

Stage 3

After your baby is delivered, you'll be in the third stage of labor. You'll be able to relax and focus on your baby. This is when your placenta will be delivered. You'll still have some contractions and after-pains, but they won't be nearly as painful. Your doctor will probably ask you to push one more time to deliver the placenta. You're likely to feel elated, happy, and relieved as you hold your baby.

This stage is usually over in about 20 minutes. Your doctor will press on your stomach to check your uterus, which may be painful. If you need a tear or episiotomy repaired, your doctor will do that now. Physically, you may be cold, shaky, and have chills.

During this stage, you will probably be able to start nursing your baby. Skin-to-skin contact will help keep your baby warm and help you bond with them. You will continue to have mild contractions to help your uterus shrink. Your doctor will monitor your vital signs and check to make sure you're okay. If you had anesthesia, your anesthesiologist will check to make sure you're recovering from that.


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Medically Reviewed on 9/7/2021
March of Dimes: "Stages of Labor."

Stanford Children's Health: "Overview of Labor."

Tommy's: "The latent phase of labour."

University of Washington Medical Center: "The Stages of Labor and Birth."