Labor typically progresses in stages and in a predictable way. By monitoring the strength of contractions and other vital elements of the birthing process, medical professionals and parents-to-be can better assess how far the labor has progressed and estimate the time of delivery more accurately.
The first stage of the labor and delivery process includes both latent and active labor. This stage is characterized by:
• Steadily increasing contractions – These contractions may begin as cramps in the lower back and wrapping around to the sides. They can be distinguished from Braxton-Hicks contractions or false labor because they become stronger and occur at shorter intervals over time.
• Nausea and temperature disturbances – During this stage, many women experience nausea and may feel overly cold or hot. This is due to hormonal changes occurring in the body during the labor process.
• Cervix dilation and effacement – The cervix both thins and opens during the labor process. This is necessary in order to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal. Typically full dilation takes between twelve and twenty hours to achieve.
Delivery is the second stage and typically consists of alternating very strong contractions and periods of rest. Women are asked to push during the contractions to help the baby into the world. Contractions continue to occur at short intervals throughout the delivery process and usually even after the baby has been born. At certain times the midwife or physician may ask the mother to stop pushing. This is to allow more time for the birth canal to expand in order to protect tissues against tearing or other damage. Immediately after birth, the umbilical cord is cut to separate the baby from the mother’s body and the placenta that has provided nourishment for the last nine months.
The third stage is one of the least stressful on the body and comprises the delivery of the placenta. During this stage, the attending medical professional will examine the mother to ensure that bleeding is minimal and to ensure that the entire placenta is delivered. Many women are allowed to hold their new babies for the first time while third stage labor is still in progress.