nurse checking on pregnant woman

Fly View Productions/E+ via Getty Images

Prepare for labor

So after nine months of headaches, trouble sleeping, and the occasional mood swing, Baby is finally about to be here! Now, there’s just one more obstacle in the way, but there’s a reason it’s called “labor”.

What is labor?

Labor is the process through which you deliver Baby, and is broken down into three stages:

  1. The first stage is comprised of two phases - early labor and active labor
  2. Pushing
  3. Delivering the placenta

Early labor

A woman is considered being in early labor once her cervix begins to dilate, and contractions come fairly regularly and last about 30 to 90 seconds each. Women may also notice passing their mucus plug (known as bloody show) at this point as well. Those who begin early labor prior to week 37 should call their healthcare provider immediately. The same is true if there's continued bleeding, decreased fetal movement, or if your water breaks. However, early labor can last up to a couple of days, so while a call to the healthcare provider isn’t the worst idea in the world, many choose to hold off on the race to the delivery room if there are no worrisome symptoms and if they're past 37 weeks.

Active labor

Active labor begins when your cervical dilation starts to pick up, dilating about 1 cm an hour and reaching about 4-6 cm dilated. You will also notice more frequent contractions. Guidelines suggest that you go to the hospital once your contractions are coming 5 minutes apart, and last about a minute or so each. Many women will elect to take the epidural during this stage, as it can get a bit more intense towards the end of active labor. You should avoid pushing until directed, as pushing before full dilation can result in a tear.


Once you’ve reached a full 10 cm dilation, it’ll be time to get Baby on out of there! Pushing can be tough, so it’s important to follow your healthcare provider's instructions to the best of your ability, like slowing down when advised to, or timing your pushes along with your contractions. It can take a few hours to push Baby out, particularly if this is your first delivery or you had an epidural, but sooner or later you’ll see her head, and the rest will follow!

Delivering the placenta

Once Baby is born, you’ll still need to deliver the placenta, also known as the afterbirth (get it?). This usually only takes a few minutes, and its exit may be accompanied by a bit of blood. Once you’ve cleared the placenta, if you deliver at a hospital, your healthcare provider will evaluate you to make sure that all is well, and determine what, if any, stitches, medications, or other procedures you’ll need.

The bottom line

Nobody ever said labor was easy, but take comfort in the fact that it's something humans have been doing since we've been around. Every birth is different, we hope yours is filled with joy. If you're a bit worried about labor and delivery, childbirth classes can be an excellent resource for moms-to-be.

Reviewed by Dr. Jamie Lo
Read more
  • "Labor Induction: FAQ154." ACOG. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 1/12/2015. Web.
  • "Labor and birth." U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, n.d. Web.
Get the Ovia Pregnancy app
Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Google Play Store Get our app at the Google Play Store