What to Expect During Labor
Labor pains, labor progression, supportive efforts during labor–Here’s what to expect
Image source: belchonock
If you are expecting your first child, you are likely finding yourself wondering what to expect when you go to the hospital, or when you begin laboring at home, and you may find yourself with a lot of questions about what it will be like for labor and the delivery of your child.
One of the most frightened times in my life was a moment about a week before the delivery my first child as I recall I was sitting on the couch watching television, shifting my weight uncomfortably from side to side and trying to find a comfortable position to sit in, when the enormity suddenly hit me in a wave of anxiety.
It suddenly hit me that no matter what I did there was no avoiding going through the process of labor and delivery for my baby. This was at a time when the Internet and Google and all of the online communities of support was not a thing this was a time when you would’ve picked up the telephone call someone you know who had been through it to get the calling support that you need. But I was stubborn. I didn’t want to call anyone. I simply sat with my anxiety and thought about how terrifying labor and delivery was for me.
As it turns out I’m a lot braver than I thought I was at the time. I went through it and I survived it. My baby was healthy and perfectly beautiful. And although it was a terrifying experience on some levels, for the most part I had the support that I needed at the time and my body had instincts that I had not even known about. Women’s bodies have been progressing through labor and delivery since the beginning of mankind. Our current medical system is so much more advanced so if you take all of that instinct and all of that genetic memory that our bodies carry and add to it the miracles of modern medicine and supportive care, you can rest assured that you are giving yourself and your baby the best shot at a productive and safe labor and deliver.
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This article will provide a good overview of what you can expect for the labor and delivery of your child, most especially the labor portion. You have a lot more input and a bit more control over what is happening during the laboring portion of childbirth. You can set the stage, you can determine where you’re going to have your child, and you can choose whether or not to incorporate certain medical procedures. You can choose who is with you and how you will handle the pain. For the most part, you get a bit of input. Given, there are many women who have extremely fast labors or progress to delivery so quickly that they just have to go with the flow wherever they are. My cousin actually gave birth to one of her daughters in the back of the station wagon parked in front of the hospital. You don’t always know what’s going to happen but you can be as prepared as possible. What we hope to do is cover a few things so that you have an idea of what is coming and you can make a few of those decisions ahead of time. While nature is totally in control and will make some decisions for you, you can at least try to be prepared.
What is labor like?
Labor is different for every woman. Sometimes there are trends in families where most of the women in the family have fast labors. Some women experience overwhelmingly uncomfortable pain through the majority of their labor which intensifies at the moment of childbirth. Other women have Braxton-Hicks contractions that go on for days or weeks before they go into labor. There is a difference between Braxton-Hicks contractions and actual labor. I had Braxton-Hicks contractions, also called “false labor” a month before my oldest son was born.
And let me tell you there’s nothing false about false labor. At least when we’re talking about the pain factor. It’s called false labor because you’re not actually progressing through labor toward delivery. It’s kind of like a false alarm. You’re not necessarily ready to begin laboring and delivering your child but you are having contractions like pains. I had them for several days before my oldest son was born. I couldn’t sleep. The pain was bothersome and at times intense. I was ornery. And I was ready to have my baby. It seems a bit counter productive to have Braxton Hicks contractions because if you have them for several days prior to delivery you are exhausted. But what the body knows we often don’t necessarily understand or we can’t logically explain. The best way I know to explain Braxton Hicks contractions is that your body is practicing for labor and delivery. My body practiced a lot! When I actually went into active labor it was one and one half hour before my son was born. For the pushing part of delivery, I pushed twice. And before you get all jealous over my super easy delivery, understand that I had a level 3-4 degree perineal tear that required longer to sew up than the actual delivery took.
I’m not telling you any of this to frighten you, but to encourage you. Because what may seem like a horrific, horrendous, unbearable pain, is, in fact, a temporary experience that leads to the most beautiful moment. The hard work that your body will perform is so grounded in instinct that your body will do so much of the work for you. It doesn’t last forever and you are so much stronger than you know you are. I was a terrified 18-year-old young lady with no real experience of pain in my life until that moment and I did great! So will you!
For some women, labor is fairly typical and follows a fairly predictable pattern. We’ll talk about that pattern so that you can recognize what is happening with your body when the time comes. If you plan for the norm while being aware of some of the outlying experiences that you could have you will feel more proactive and prepared for your labor.
Stages of Labor
There are different stages of labor that you will go through. Some are more intense than others. Again, it varies between women so what we’ll cover is the stages of labor, generally speaking, and you can understand that your exact experience may vary somewhat from this.
Early Labor Phase –The time of the onset of labor until the cervix is dilated to 3 cm. (Stages of Labor: Early Labor, Active Labor & Transition Stage)
In the earliest labor phase your body will begin to have contractions that can feel like back pains, menstrual cramps, or a strong tightening of the uterus.You may also feel pressure or pain in the pelvic area. Your cervix will begin to efface and dilate.Contractions can last between 30 and 45 seconds long usually with 5 to 30 minutes between them.
What you need to focus on during this early labor phase is staying relaxed, resting as much as possible, and also drinking liquids or having light snacks. If you begin early labor during the night it is best if you try to get some sleep because you need to be well rested for the next phases of labor.
During this first phase of labor your contractions can be somewhat irregular and they can also be mild. Some women don’t experience much pain during this phase of labor. If it isn’t long before your due date and it is not time for your baby to arrive you should call your doctor and possibly go in for an evaluation. There are medications and things that your doctor can do to slow or halt your labor until it is time. They can also let you know if the contractions you are having are Braxton-Hicks contractions which means that your body is not progressing toward labor but you are experiencing contractions in your abdomen.
You should begin to time your contractions if possible. If your contractions begin to get closer together and start to become more regular then you can be assured that your labor is likely progressing. Most of this early phase of labor can be done at home where you are comfortable. But if your labor begins to progress you may need to call your doctor. If this phase of your labor seems to be progressing rapidly, then you should certainly be evaluated.
Every woman is different and progression of this labor can be different as well. For me, I never had regular contractions. They were irregular and varied in strength and once I arrived at the hospital for my first baby I was already dilated to 10 cm. I was ready to deliver when I arrived at the hospital! My advice to you on this is to trust your instinct. If you feel a heaviness or a pressure or a need to push and you should be getting to the hospital or getting your midwife to come right away. As alarming and intense as these early contractions can feel, most of the time they progress fairly slowly and you have adequate time to get to the hospital or to get your midwife to come to you. If your water breaks which is a rupturing of the membrane releasing the amniotic fluid, then you need to get to the hospital or get prepared for delivery quicker. This means that your labor has progressed.
You should be watching for the following with your contractions:
- Growing more intense
- Following a regular pattern
- Lasting longer
- Becoming closer together
If your amniotic sac ruptures be sure to note the time so that you can relay this information to your delivery support team.
This phase of labor usually lasts between 8 to 10 hours.
Active Labor Phase – Continues from 3 cm. until the cervix is dilated to 7 cm. (Stages of Labor: Early Labor, Active Labor & Transition Stage)
When your contractions become stronger, longer, and closer together it is time for you to get to the birthing center, or hospital, or get your delivery support team together where you plan to deliver.
The active labor phase usually lasts between 3 to 5 hours. It is during this phase that you will likely begin using breathing techniques to manage the pain. Try to stay as relaxed as possible and rest between contractions to save your energy for the delivery.
During this phase you can take a warm bath or take walks or switch positions frequently to try to stay comfortable.Contractions during this time will typically be 45 to 60 seconds long with 3 to 5 minutes in between. Rest as much as possible between the contractions.
Transition Phase – Continues from 7 cm. until the cervix is fully dilated to 10 cm. (Stages of Labor: Early Labor, Active Labor & Transition Stage)
During the transition phase you will rely more on your support system than ever.This is the most challenging phase of labor but it is the fastest stage.Try not to be full of panic or fear because each contraction is one less contraction you will have to have. Try not to focus on what’s coming or get wrapped up in the fear that is just going to get worse. If you tell yourself one contraction at a time and manage them one at a time it will help you to not feel so overwhelmed.
This phase of labor can be particularly painful and difficult but again be reminded that it is temporary and it will all be over soon.
The transition phase typically lasts between 30 minutes to two hours.Contractions will typically last between 60 to 90 seconds with 30 seconds to two minutes between. You also might experience some new symptoms such as gas, hot flashes, chills or nausea. Some women feel an overwhelming need to have a bowel movement.Try not to worry about these things will be embarrassed about them because labor is a very natural process and you don’t have control over those things.
Practice panting, or blowing, or deep breathing to get through the contractions. When your body has dilated enough you will be overcome with a need to push. Your doctor or midwife can let you know when it is time to push.
After labor comes the birth of your baby!
When you are dilated far enough and it is time to push, your body will go through a deep bearing down feeling and when that happens you will be guided to push as hard as you can.
Make sure during this time no matter how difficult it is to focus and pay attention to what your doctor is saying, that you need to listen to them to hear instruction. If there is a problem with the umbilical cord or if your baby is in distress they will let you know what you need to do so that they can do what they need to do. The birthing part could take only a few minutes or it could take a couple of hours. It is hard work for your body but you can do this!
When you push try not to hold tension in your face. Your doctor or midwife may ask you to concentrate on a certain area of your pushing or they may ask you to hold off on your push. They are watching the delivery and guiding the delivery and will advise you on what to do to make it go as smoothly as possible.
Your baby’s head will deliver first and then with another series of hard pushes the shoulders followed by the rest of the body.
After the birth of your baby comes the final stage of labor and delivery–the delivery of the placenta. It typically takes about 30 minutes for the placenta to be delivered. During this time, however, you will likely be moved way more focused on that beautiful baby you just delivered!
Delivering a baby is hard work. Trust and know that your body knows what it is doing. It can be a bit frightening for your body to be doing something that seems so out of your control. But trust the process. Trust that many many women before you have done this successfully and some with very little assistance. Trust that every woman has a different experience. Trust that you have a team of people there to support you and you are a strong person. There is no shame in accepting pain medication if you need it. There is no shame in crying. There’s no shame in yelling or moaning or whining. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. Don’t worry about those details, just celebrate yourself and that new baby!
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Christina M. Ward,
Babienet blog contributor
Mother and grandmother
What to Expect During Labor is a general discussion of the stages of labor and delivery to prepare for childbirth.