Stages of Labor and Delivery: What to Expect

While every pregnancy is different, there are certain phases of labor and delivery that are common to nearly all expectant mothers. Knowing what to expect during labor can help to ease the mind of expectant mothers and provide a framework for assessing various symptoms and situations that can arise throughout labor and delivery.

Early labor

During the first stage of labor, most women experience cramps and contractions as the cervix begins to expand in readiness for delivery. These contractions typically last for about thirty seconds and may be mild enough in the earliest stages of labor to go unnoticed, especially if the expectant mother is sleeping or engaged in other activities at the time. The contractions are generally felt as tightening in the lower back that can resemble menstrual cramps. During this stage of labor, most women also experience spotting; this discharge is called show or bloody show and is a mucus plug that protects the opening to the cervix and is released as the cervix expands. This stage can last as long as a week in some cases. Most women can carry on normal activities as long as they feel comfortable doing so.

Active labor

As labor continues, the contractions occur more frequently and become stronger, at times causing pain for the expectant mother. Pressure may build up in the lower back as well. The membranes containing the amniotic fluid may rupture during this stage if they have not already. Most pregnant women should head for the hospital during active labor in order to ensure that both mother and baby are protected during this critical stage.


The hard work of bringing a baby into the world is accomplished during delivery. Depending on the childbirth method chosen, the mother may be asked to practice breathing techniques during the initial phases of delivery; this helps to control pain and to focus the mother’s attention on the processes occurring within her body. Once the cervix and birth canal have opened sufficiently, the mother can begin pushing to help deliver the baby. At some points, the attending physician or midwife may ask the mother to stop pushing or to push more gently; this is to allow the birth canal additional time to stretch during the delivery process. After the baby emerges, the mother typically must deliver the placenta; this part of the delivery process requires no urgency and is usually accomplished quickly once the birth has occurred.

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