The Different Stages of Labor: What You Need to Know and What to Expect During Labor

Labor is usually divided into several stages: the opening stage, the pushing stage, and the afterbirth stage. Understanding these can provide a clearer insight into where you are in the process. Here is a simple guide to help you navigate the different steps of labor.

Ingela Ågren

Read time: 4 m

Verified by Ingela Ågren

Certified Midwife

The Different Stages of Labor: What You Need to Know and What to Expect During LaborPhoto: Preggers

The opening stage typically consists of two phases: the latent phase and the active phase. The latent phase marks the onset of labor and lasts from when the cervix begins to soften and open until it is about 5 cm dilated. This phase can last several hours, up to a day, or sometimes even longer. Contractions may be irregular at first and mild, but they gradually become more frequent and intense over time. It is not uncommon to experience some light bleeding mixed with mucus from the vagina, which indicates that the mucus plug has dislodged. It's common to experience loose stools during this phase and to need frequent bathroom visits. If your water breaks, it is important to contact the delivery room for advice. The water is typically clear or faintly pink. Many expectant mothers choose to stay at home during the latent phase.

Tips for managing the latent phase: Rest as much as possible between contractions. It can be hard to eat, but try to keep up your energy. Small, frequent snacks may be easier to manage than large meals. A bath or shower can help you relax and offer some pain relief. A warm wheat bag and massage can also be soothing. Paracetamol can help too. Some midwife offices also offer TENS machines for rent for pain relief at home.

The active phase generally starts when the cervix has dilated to about 5 cm and continues until it is fully open. During this phase, contractions typically become more regular, and the opening of the cervix usually occurs more quickly than in the latent phase.

Tips for managing the active phase: Staying active and changing positions can help the labor process. It's beneficial to alternate between upright positions and positions that allow you to rest a bit. Ensure you drink plenty of fluids and eat enough. Try different types of pain relief to find what works for you. Common pain relief methods during labor include: baths, showers, heat, TENS, sterile water injections, laughing gas, and epidurals.

The pushing stage can be split into two phases: the descent phase and the pushing phase. During labor, the baby's head moves down through the pelvis towards the pelvic floor. It's common to feel increased downward pressure during this phase. The head presses against the rectum, making it feel like you need to use the bathroom. When the baby's head descends, the impulse to push intensifies. It's common for intense burning and stretching sensations as the head becomes visible at the vaginal opening and is about to be born.

Tips for managing the pushing phase: Try to relax and feel heavy in your buttocks. Trust your body's natural instinct to push. The midwife usually applies heat to the perineum to reduce the risk of tears, which can often be comforting. Toward the end, the midwife might instruct you to slow down the birthing process to minimize tearing.

The afterbirth stage begins after the baby is born and continues until the placenta and membranes are delivered. After delivery, the uterus contracts, which helps the placenta detach from the uterine wall. Typically, after obtaining the consent of the birthing person, an injection of oxytocin is administered to aid uterine contraction. Sometimes the placenta is expelled naturally, but sometimes the midwife assists by gently pulling on the umbilical cord. Most placentas are delivered within 30 minutes after the birth of the baby.

Ingela Ågren

Verified by Ingela Ågren

Certified Midwife


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