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A pregnant woman holds her abdomen while appearing to be in some pain.

What Is Labor?

During pregnancy you spend months marveling at the changes in your body, eagerly anticipating the arrival of your baby, and curious (and maybe a little apprehensive) about what labor and delivery are really like. While the experience can be different for every woman, having a basic understanding of what to expect during labor can help you feel reassured as you prepare for this momentous event.

What Are the Signs of Labor?

In the movies, childbirth often begins with a woman’s water breaking, but in real life, the signs that labor is beginning aren’t usually as dramatic. Here’s what to look for:

Pre-Labor Symptoms

Very early signs that your body is preparing for labor can occur a month, or a few hours, before the first stage begins. You might notice some of these indications on your own; others might be pointed out by your doctor or midwife. These signs include:

· The baby “dropping” or descending lower into the pelvis
· Your cervix beginning to dilate and thin
· Cramps and back pain
· Loosening of joints
· Diarrhea
· Fatigue
· Nesting instinct, as you feel compelled to clean and organize your home

Signs of Early Labor

For most women, the beginning of the true labor is marked by the following signs:

· Strong, regularly spaced contractions. These contractions follow a pattern, growing more frequent and intense as time passes. Contractions may last for 30 to 70 seconds each.
· Bloody show. You may see that the mucous plug that seals your uterus has been discharged.
· Pain in your belly or lower back. You may experience lower abdominal pressure, menstrual cramps, an upset stomach, or pain that radiates from your lower back down your legs. This pain or discomfort won’t be relieved by changing position.
· Water breaking. While your water can break in the first phase of labor, it’s not typically among the first indications that labor has begun. In fact, it’s often one of the final signs of labor. Be aware that water breaking doesn’t always occur with a surge of amniotic fluid. You may feel only a trickle or a sensation of wetness.

When to Call Your Doctor or Midwife

As you near your baby’s expected delivery date, you’ll have more frequent visits with your doctor, who will give you clear instructions about when to call or go to the hospital. But don’t be afraid to contact them if you have any questions, and always call if you experience the following:

  • Bright red discharge, instead of brown or pinkish
  • Blurred or double vision, a severe headache or swelling, which can be signs of preeclampsia, a condition that requires medical intervention
  • Your water breaking, especially if the fluid has a green or brown color, which could indicate that meconium, the baby’s first stool, is in the amniotic fluid

The Stages of Labor

Labor is typically divided into three stages, beginning with the signs listed above and ending with the delivery of the placenta. Here’s what happens during each stage:

The First Stage of Labor

This stage has two phases — early labor and active labor.

· Early labor is when you’ll begin to have regular contractions, which will become stronger and more frequent as the phase progresses. During this time,your cervix is effacing and dilating up to 6 cm. You may find that walking, taking a bath or shower, or using relaxation and breathing techniques helps ease your discomfort during this phase, which can last anywhere between a few hours to a few days.

· Active labor begins once the cervix has dilated to 6 cm. Contractions become stronger and closer together. This is the time to go to the hospital or contact your midwife, if you haven’t already. It’s also the time to ask for pain medication if you want it. This phase typically lasts four to eight hours, with the last part of the phase, sometimes called transition, becoming more intense and painful, as contractions become more frequent and lengthen to 60 to 120 seconds each. Tell your doctor or midwife if you have the urge to push.

The Second Stage of Labor

This is the big moment — the part many women remember most clearly. It’s time to push and then meet your new baby! This stage begins when the cervix is fully dilated to 10 cm. Your health care practitioner will coach you, telling you when to push, or letting you know when to ease up, giving your vaginal tissue a chance to stretch, rather than tear. After your baby is delivered, the umbilical cord will be cut and clamped, and you’ll have your first opportunity to greet your new little one as they’re placed in your arms.

The Third Stage of Labor

At this point, your attention will likely be focused on your baby, but your body is still working to complete the process of labor by delivering the placenta. This typically occurs within 30 minutes of your baby’s birth. You may experience mild contractions as the placenta moves through the birth canal. Your doctor or midwife will ask you to push to deliver the placenta which will be inspected to make sure it’s whole and no pieces are left inside the uterus.

Expert Maternity Care at Norton King’s Daughters’ Health

With prenatal classes, and amenities that make labor and delivery more comfortable, the obstetrics team at Norton King's Daughter's Health offers the support pregnant women need to feel assured and ready for the birth of their baby. To find out more about maternity care at Norton KDH or about any of our women’s health services, contact us at 812-801-0856.

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