For most women, labor is the big moment. You have been waiting close to nine months for it, and it is the last thing separating you from holding your baby in your arms. Just like every pregnancy can be different, so can every labor. The natural process of delivering your baby may take less time–or more time–than you may think.
In the first stage of labor, your body begins to prepare for delivery. You will start having contractions that become stronger and closer together. Many women mistake Braxton-Hicks contractions for this stage, but your doctor won’t consider you in labor unless your cervix is dilating, or beginning to open, and effacing, beginning to thin.
The Mayo Clinic divides the first stage of labor into two phases. In the first phase, early labor, your cervix will dilate. You may see a blood-tinged vaginal discharge, known as bloody show. You should have contractions at this point, occurring every five to 20 minutes and lasting from 30 to 60 seconds each. In the second phase, your cervix will fully dilate, reaching 10 centimeters (cm), and your contractions will increase to the point where you feel like they aren’t stopping.
This stage is where the most variation in the labor stages can occur, according to Penn Medicine. On average, the medical school reports it lasts an average of 10 to 12 hours, but there is no set time frame for how long this stage can last. For a first pregnancy, the process may take longer, reaching 20 hours or more. During this labor stage, your membranes may rupture, known as your water breaking, which can increase the speed of your baby’s delivery.
In the second stage of delivery, you will push the baby from your body. If your membranes did not rupture in the first stage, they will rupture in this one. According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, the baby’s head will stretch your cervix and your perineum, the area between your vagina and your rectum, as it begins to crown. If you are delivering a breach baby, some other part of the baby, like his foot, may exit the cervix first.
As the baby crowns, you may feel the urge to push, or bear down. Your doctor or nurse may instruct you to wait to ensure you do not strain your cervix, which can cause it to swell. This labor stage can last from one contraction to an average of two hours in a normal delivery. It ends when you push the baby from your body.
After separating the baby from the umbilical cord, your third stage of labor begins. During this stage, you may be able to hold your baby and begin the bonding process. If you plan to breastfeed the baby, your nurse may encourage you to do so at this time. According to the March of Dimes website, the contractions for the third stage will start five to 10 minutes after you deliver the baby. In this stage, your body will push out the placenta. The process can take from five to 30 minutes, and you may experience chills or feel shaky. As you did in the second stage, you will push when the nurse or doctor instructs you to. At the end of this, your doctor may stitch you if you tore, and your recovery begins.
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