Labor and Delivery
Is this topic for you?
This topic provides basic information about normal labor and delivery. If you need information on pregnancy, other types of childbirth, or the first 6 weeks after childbirth (postpartum), see:
- Reference Pregnancy
- Reference Cesarean Section
- Reference Vaginal Birth After Cesarean (VBAC)
- Reference Postpartum: First 6 Weeks After Childbirth
What is labor and delivery?
At the end of the third Reference trimester Opens New Window of pregnancy, your body will begin to show signs that it is time for your baby to be born. The process that leads to the birth of your baby is called labor and delivery. Every labor and delivery includes certain stages, but each birth is unique. Even if you have had a baby before, the next time will be different.
Giving birth to a baby is hard work. It can also be scary, thrilling, and unpredictable. Learning all you can ahead of time will help you be ready when your time comes.
What are the stages of labor?
There are three stages of labor. The first stage includes early labor and active labor. The second stage lasts through the birth, with the baby traveling down and out of the birth canal. The third stage is after the birth, when the placenta is delivered.
Stage one. The muscles of the uterus start to tighten (contract) and then relax. These contractions help to Reference thin (efface) and open (dilate) Opens New Window Reference Opens New Window the cervix so the baby can pass through the birth canal.
Stage one has three phases:
- Early. Early contractions are usually irregular, and they usually last less than a minute. The early phase of labor can be uncomfortable and may last from a few hours to days.
- Active. Contractions become strong and regular and last about a minute. This is the time to go to the hospital or birthing center. The pain of contractions may be moderate or intense.
- Transition. The cervix will open completely. If there are no problems, the baby should be in position to be born.
Stage two. The cervix is dilated completely and the baby is born.
Stage three. This stage occurs after the baby is born. You have contractions until the placenta is delivered.
How can you manage pain?
Having a support person, trying different positions, or using breathing exercises may help you cope with labor pain. You also can listen to music or use imagery to distract you and help you relax. Some women labor in water or take a shower.
Many women ask for pain medicine, such as an epidural injection, which partially or fully numbs the lower body. Even if you plan to not use pain medicine (natural childbirth), it can be comforting to know that you can get pain relief if you want it.
How can you prepare for labor and delivery?
Getting regular exercise during pregnancy will help you handle the physical demands of labor and delivery. Try adding Reference Kegel exercises Opens New Window to your daily routine. They strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. This helps prevent a long period of pushing during labor.
In your sixth or seventh month of pregnancy, consider taking a childbirth education class with your partner or support person. It can teach you ways to relax and the best ways for your support person to help you.
There are many decisions to make about labor and delivery. Before your last weeks of pregnancy, be sure to talk to your doctor or nurse-midwife about your birthing options and what you prefer.
You can write down all of your preferences as a birth plan. This gives you a chance to state how you would most like things to be handled. Just keep in mind that it is not possible to predict exactly what will happen during labor and delivery.
What can you expect right after childbirth?
Now you get to hold and look at your baby for the first time. You may feel excited, tired, and amazed all at the same time.
If you plan to breast-feed, you may start soon after birth. Don't be surprised if you have some trouble at first. Breast-feeding is something you and your baby have to learn together. You will get better with practice. If you need help getting started, ask a nurse or breast-feeding specialist (Reference lactation consultant Opens New Window).
In the hours after delivery, you may feel sore and need help going to the bathroom. You may have sharp, painful contractions for several days as your uterus shrinks in size.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about labor and delivery:
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|By:||Reference Healthwise Staff||Last Revised: Reference November 2, 2011|
|Medical Review:||Reference Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Reference Kirtly Jones, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology