The Stages of Labor and Ways to Cope
Women's Health
March 24, 2022
The Stages of Labor and Ways to Cope
Mom siting on the side of a bed in labor

Every woman’s labor experience is unique, and it can vary widely even from one pregnancy to the next. Sometimes a woman will only labor for a few hours. At other times, labor may put a woman’s physical and emotional strength to the test.

No matter what comes, you can help yourself during the different stages of labor by using a variety of comfort measures to cope. They will not provide a pain-free childbirth, but they can help lessen your discomfort, promote labor progress and give you more control over the experience. Here is a look at the stages of labor, along with some ways to embrace and power through them.

“Clinicians generally divide labor into three stages based on what is happening with the woman’s cervix,” explains obstetrician/gynecologist Jennifer Campbell, M.D., FACOG, an obstetrician/gynecologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano. “The cervix goes from being closed to fully open to allow for baby’s exit. Although no one knows how labor and childbirth will unfold until it happens, a woman can better prepare herself with some understanding of the typical sequence of events.”

Stage 1: Early, active and transition labor

When regular contractions begin, labor is considered to be underway. The cervix will begin to open (dilate) and become soft and thin (efface). This process allows baby to move into the birth canal, or pelvic area.

The first stage of pregnancy is the longest, and is divided into three phases: early labor, active labor and a transition period. If contractions aren’t very close together or very long-lasting, you are in early labor (or the latent phase). Early labor can be unpredictable, with the average length varying from hours to days. But because early labor is not too uncomfortable, it may provide a chance for you to ease into laboring. If you feel up to it, you should be able to go about your day as planned.

What you can do for comfort:

  • Go for a walk
  • Take a shower or bath
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Finish packing your bags for the hospital
  • Practice the breathing techniques you learned in your childbirth class
  • Relax and write a letter to Baby

Active labor is when the real work begins. “During this phase, your cervix may dilate from around 4 centimeters to 10 centimeters,” Campbell says. “Your contractions will become stronger, closer together and very regular. You may feel nauseated, and your water may break — if it hasn’t already. Now is the time to head to the hospital, if you’re not already there. You will get your epidural during this time as well, if it is in your plan, but your coping techniques will really come in handy during active labor.”

What you can do for comfort:

  • Go for a walk, or at least change positions frequently
  • Roll on a large birthing ball or use other available birthing tools
  • Take a warm shower or bath
  • Rock in a rocking chair
  • Do pelvic tilts, which are great for backaches
  • Have someone give you a massage between contractions

The last part of active labor is often referred to as transition and can be especially intense and painful. Contractions will be close together and may last 60 to 90 seconds. “If you feel like pushing but are not fully dilated, your health care provider will encourage you not to push to keep your cervix from swelling,” Campbell says. “Try to pant or blow your way through the contractions, and focus on relaxing as much as possible.”

Stage 2: It’s time for baby!

The second stage is also known as the “pushing” phase of labor. This stage begins after the cervix becomes fully dilated until the birth of your baby.

“This period averages about 15 minutes to 3 hours, depending on whether you are a first-time mom or you have had an epidural,” according to Campbell. “Timing here also depends on things like the position of your baby’s head and their size.”

With each contraction, you may feel a strong urge to push (unless you have been given an epidural). With an epidural, doctors generally encourage women to push according to a schedule and to remain on their backs during active labor. For those without an epidural, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists supports an individual approach to pushing, advising that a woman should push according to her body’s cues and for as long as feels comfortable.

What you can do for comfort:

  • To conserve energy and help you relax, try to focus on your pelvic or rectal area rather than holding tension in your face
  • Take breaks from pushing when needed and bear down when you really feel the urge
  • Use available birthing tools, including a birthing ball or squat bar
  • Request a mirror so you can view your progress or feel your baby’s head for some peace of mind
  • Stand, kneel or squat to help move things along

Stage 3: Delivery of the placenta

A sense of relief and accomplishment should come with the delivery of your baby. But there are still some things that must happen after your baby’s birth. During the third stage of labor is when you will deliver the placenta ? but don’t worry, this one is much easier to push out.

“You will have some mild contractions, during which you will be asked to push one more time so your placenta can be delivered,” Campbell explains. “The health care team will then examine it to make sure it’s intact, or remove any fragments left in the uterus to prevent bleeding and infection. Then it’s finally time to catch your breath.”

Now what?

  • Enjoy this special time with your baby
  • Revel in the miracle of birth

To find an Ob/Gyn to support your labor and delivery, visit

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