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All women labor differently and on their individual time clocks. There are, however, some basic signposts that can indicate how labor is progressing. These are divided into three commonly recognized stages for labor and birth. In addition there are specific signs which can occur prior to labor as well as some noteworthy changes that occur after the birth. The following is a breakdown of all of these stages with their most common characteristics of each. Remember, these are based on an average of the entire spectrum of experiences women can have during labor and birth.


Pre-labor signs occur in the last few weeks of pregnancy prior to labor and birth. During this time there may be some thinning out, ripening, and dilation of the cervix, and you may lose your mucus plug as a result of this dilation. Braxton-Hicks contractions become more frequent as the uterus prepare for labor. Additionally, the baby's head may move down, or engage, in the pelvis.


This is typically the longest stage of labor, and it is generally divided into three phases: early, active, and transition. The purpose of this stage is for the cervix to fully dilate and become effaced through a series of contractions. The amniotic sac usually breaks at some point during this phase.


During this phase you may experience some light contractions that may be 20 minutes or more apart. The cervix usually dilates 1-4 centimeters as a result of these contractions. If this phase begins at night this is the time to sleep and rest for the task ahead. If it starts in the daytime move around to encourage the laboring and relax as much as possible.


Labor becomes more intense during this phase with contractions four or five minutes apart lasting up to sixty seconds. The cervix usually dilates 4-8 centimeters during this phase. The key during this phase is to stay relaxed.


This is one of the shortest and hardest parts of labor. Contractions can be two to three minutes apart and can last up to 90 seconds. The cervix is completely dilated when this phase is over. The following are some signs of being in the transition phase:

Fluctuation in body temperature
Feeling of pressure against the rectum
Nausea or vomiting
Feeling the urge to push
Leg cramps
Sensitivity to touch


After the transition phase is over many women experience as interval during which contractions may become weak for about 20 minutes.


This stage begins with an intense urge to push and ends with the birth of the baby. The contractions are further apart at this point. Positioning is very important at this stage to better facilitate the pushing action. Upright is the best position for a quicker second stage. Relaxation is also very important. Remember that relaxing your jaw causes your pelvic floor to relax.


Once the baby has been delivered the placenta must also be expelled. This usually happens within the first thirty minutes of birth and is accompanied by mild contractions. Nursing helps the uterus contract so that the placenta can detach and be pushed out. Once the placenta detaches the uterus should clamp down to prevent hemorrhage.


The fourth stage is the postpartum stage. The body goes through many changes as it transitions out of the pregnancy state and begins the process of producing milk for the baby. The uterus continues to contract, and internal organs shift back into their pre-pregnancy places. Hormones can fluctuate wildly through this transition causing many women to experience what is know as the "baby blues." A smaller percentage of women experience a more serious condition known as postpartum depression. The key to this stage is to prepare for it as much as you prepare for the birth. Surround yourself with a strong support system and educate yourself on what to expect.