For expectant mothers, going into labor can be one of the most exciting aspects of pregnancy, as well as the scariest. This article will provide basic information to help mothers prepare for their labor and resulting birth – what to expect and how long it will take.
Having a good knowledge of the labor process and how it progresses, as well as having a rough estimate of the duration of each stage is valuable information that can provide comfort in a scary situation.
Signs of Labor
There are various signs of labor that a mother will feel as the labor process starts. A few common symptoms are:
- Cervical dilation
- Cramps and lower back pain or pressure
- Changes in vaginal discharge
- Contractions – contractions are intense cramps in the abdominal area that are caused by cervical dilation and are a signal that the process of labor and delivery has started.
- Mother’s “water breaking” — A women’s water breaking (known medically as an amniotic sac rupture) is one indicator of early labor, of which the color and odor of the fluid should be noted, as well as the time of the rupture.
It is defined as a period of irregular and unpredictable abdominal tightening that resemble contractions. While actual contractions are regular and consistent in intensity and duration, false labor contractions are unpredictable and result in no change of cervical dilation.
The Stages of Labor
There are three listed stages of labor: Early labor, active labor, and the transition phase. Each stage of labor has distinctive signs to look out for that can help the mother mentally prepare for the next stage in the birthing process.
Cervix dilation is extremely important to labor and delivery and is one of the leading methods to track labor progression to determine when the mother will give birth. A cervix is fully dilated when it reaches 10cm, roughly the size of a bagel.
It is important to note that labor varies from mother to mother and is unique to each pregnancy, regardless of whether the mom has given birth previously.
The first stage of labor is called “early labor” and marks the beginning of cervix dilation and the labor process. In early labor, the cervix, which is located at the bottom of the uterus, begins to open and soften in preparation for the upcoming birth.
In the first stage of the labor process, the mother will start to have irregular contractions that stem from the dilation of the cervix. These contractions last between 30-45 seconds each, followed by a rest period of 5-30 minutes. Contractions in early labor can be mild and often come with an ache in the lower back that feels like menstrual cramps. Some women also have vaginal discharge that appears pinkish-red, which is the mucus plug that blocks the cervix during pregnancy.
Early labor is the longest stage of labor and can last anywhere from 8-12 hours, or however long it takes for the cervix to dilate to 3cm. Women in early labor are directed to wait until the second phase of labor before they make a trip to the hospital or birthing center.
Once the cervix is dilated to 4cm, which is about the size of an Oreo, the body transitions into the second stage of early labor called “active labor”. In this second stage, the cervix will continue to dilate until it reaches full dilation of 10cm. This process usually takes anywhere from 3-5 hours.
During active labor, expecting mothers should head to their local hospital or birthing center to get prepared for the actual delivery. At this point, contractions are more severe and regular, lasting for 30 -45 seconds with a 3-5-minute grace period. Many women report symptoms of nausea, leg aches, and increasing pressure in their back.
This is also the time when the mother will be administered pain medication, such as an epidural, to get through the pain. Some mothers forego an epidural, or pain medication, in which case the expectant mother will want to stay relaxed and active to help ease the painful labor process. Taking a warm bath or even walking around the hospital room or ward can make the pain from contractions more bearable.
The final stage of labor is the actual birth of the baby along with the placenta afterward. The transition phase begins once the cervix reaches full dilation of 10cm and lasts until the baby is delivered, which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
While the transition phase is the final stage of labor, it is also the most challenging, painful, and exhausting. During this stage, the mother will be having near constant contractions that are extremely painful. The contractions are longer, lasting 60 – 90 seconds with an incredibly short rest period of 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
It is not uncommon for women to experience hot flashes, severe nausea and vomiting, chills, and gas during the transition phase, as well as intense pain in the rectum and lower back. It is in this stage that the mother will have the urge to push and the doctor should be notified immediately. In some cases, women may have the urge to push when their cervix is not fully dilated, in which case she will be asked to hold back until full dilation.
Delivering the Baby
Once the urge to push has started, most mothers will be encouraged to start the actual birthing process.
Vaginal Birth (Natural Birth)
Vaginal birth (Natural birth) often lasts approximately 15 to 30 minutes in total. During birth, the mother will often feel an intense burning pain in their vaginal area and rectum and may be asked to push more gently to give the vaginal tissues time to stretch out, instead of tearing.
The head will be delivered first, followed by the body. After a quick check, the doctor will cut the umbilical cord and prepare to deliver the placenta. Delivery of the placenta is fast, often needing only 1 good push, where the mother will feel mild contraction pains.
Birth by Caesarean Section (C-section)
In some cases, a mother may have to give birth through caesarean section. These instances would include complicated delivery that could bring harm to the mother or baby, or the cervix not dilating quickly. A mother who has had a c-section in the past will also need to have a c-section for subsequent deliveries.
A c-section involves a 4-6-inch vertical incision along the pubic bone, making delivery incredibly quick. The delivery portion of a c-section lasts about 15 minutes, while the suturing of the uterus and incision adds on an extra 45 minutes to the procedure. Mother’s will also have to stay in a recovery room after the surgery for a couple of hours.
Giving birth is a beautiful experience that is like no other. As with many things, there is no way to fully prepare or approximate how long labor and delivery will last because of its dependence on the mother and her baby.