Stages of Labor
For every woman labor is unique and many women who have previously given birth even find that each labor differs from the last! However, one thing most have in common is the three distinct stages of labor. Labor can last hours or minutes but it is almost always very hard work both physically and emotionally.
Stage 1 - Early Labor, Active Labor and Transition
The first stage of labor, which is often the longest, is divided into three distinct phases, early labor, active labor and transition.
Early labor is signified when the cervix, the entrance to the womb, begins to open and thin (dilates and effaces). This needs to happen to enable the baby to make his way into the birth canal.
During early labor the cervix dilates from 0 centimeters to around 3 centimeters and contractions may begin. Normally the contractions are quite mild to begin with but get stronger and last for longer as the labor progresses. It is during this stage that you may experiences some other signs of labor such as a show, diarrhea and feeling some nausea.
Early labor can last anything from a few hours to a few days before the baby is actually delivered. For first-time mothers it normally lasts longer than for women who have already experienced childbirth. Once your contractions are coming regularly and around five minute apart you should phone your midwife or maternity unit to let them know you are on your way.
During active labor your cervix will dilate to almost 7 centimeters and your contractions will increase in length and intensity. This is the phase when labor begins to get very tiring as mothers don't get much rest between contractions and they become increasingly painful. By this point you should be in the delivery room!
If requested, you should now have access to pain relief. Whilst many mothers opt for a natural birth it can become just too painful so you shouldn't feel bad about it if you do require some help.
Active labor can last many hours although it varies tremendously for each woman. However, if you've already had a baby it shouldn't be just so long.
Transition is the last phase of the first stage of labor and is when your cervix finally dilates to 10 centimeters. This is usually the shortest but most intense and painful part of labor.
At this point contractions become much stronger and come much more closely together. You may find that each contraction follows on almost without a break between them. You will begin to feel an uncomfortable pressure in your lower back and rectum, almost as if the baby will arrive at any moment.
Transition is the quickest phase and may last anything from just a few minutes up to several hours although if you've had a previous baby it will likely be shorter this time around. Try not to push until you've been told you are fully dilated as pushing before your cervix is fully dilated can cause swelling or tearing.
Stage 2 - Your Baby is Born!
This is the stage of labor when you will deliver your baby! For some mothers it just takes a few minutes to push the baby out whilst for others it can take a few hours. Women who have had an epidural and first-time mothers usually take longer than those who have previously given birth.
Your midwife will encourage you to push with each contraction although often the feeling is such that you cannot fight against it and you may find your body doing its own thing!
You may find you change position several times during the pushing stage but just go with it and do whatever feels safe and comfortable for you. Your midwife will encourage you to push down into your bottom at this point.
Just before the baby's head crowns your midwife will tell you to stop pushing in order to allow the vaginal tissues time to stretch and to help avoid tearing. This may also be the time when you may receive an episiotomy, ie a small surgical cut to make more room for the baby's head to be delivered. If you prefer to tear naturally you should make sure you say so in your birth plan.
As the baby's head is about to crown you may be offered the opportunity to feel the top of his head or you may be able to get your birth partner to hold a mirror so you can see what is happening. The effect of this is often enough to cause the baby to crown! The baby's airways will be cleared and the umbilical cord will be unwrapped if it is around his neck or he is entangled in it.
With a sudden gush, the rest of the baby's body will be born! Congratulations... you're a mum!
Stage 3 - Delivery of the Placenta
Within 5 to 10 minutes of your baby's birth the placenta will be delivered. This is the third and final stage of labor. Very often this happens almost unnoticed by the mother. Your midwife will massage your tummy to encourage the delivery of the placenta and you may be given an injection to speed things along. However, if you are breastfeeding this should not be necessary as breastfeeding will encourage further contractions to dispel the placenta. When the midwife feels the time is right she may ask you a few gentle pushes and the delivery itself is usually painless.
The placenta will be examined to ensure it is all in one piece and your midwife will check that your bleeding is under control. If any of the placenta has been retained by the uterus you will need an operation to prevent bleeding and infection.
Many mothers like to see the placenta after the delivery as it was it after all that was nourishing the baby for the duration of the pregnancy!
Any stitches will now be carried out and you may receive a numbing injection; you can also use gas and air to help alleviate any discomfort you may feel.
If you are breastfeeding your uterus will begin contracting back to it's pre-pregnancy size with each breastfeed. Breastfeeding also means a reduced risk of severe bleeding although you may receive an injection if the staff are concerned about any bleeding.
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