The stages of labor: a partner’s guide

If you’re going to support your partner during childbirth, you need to know the stages of labor. The whole process of childbirth – aka labor and delivery – takes place in three stages.

We do cover the stages of labor in greater depth in our forthcoming course, with a focus on what each stage tends to look like. We also outline what your responsibilities are during each stage, along with what you need to do. Depending on who you talk to the stages can be slightly different. As fans of Lamaze, we believe in their stages.

The first stage of labor

Of all the stages of labor, stage 1 is the longest stage. When people talk having a 20 hour labor, about 2/3 of that time comprises the first stage.

This whole stage is about dilating the cervix, the opening to the uterus. By the end of the stage, the cervix will be 10cm wide – big enough to let the baby come through.

Learn about the stages of labor
Early labor is a good time to take a walk.

The first stage of labor has 3 distinct phases:

  • Early labor (the Hey we’re in labor! phase)
  • Active labor (the Time to get down to business phase)
  • Transition (the Oh sh*t let’s take it one at a time phase)

Early labor is the period when contractions are 5-20 minutes apart. Sometimes people miss it because the contractions start off gradually. Over the hours the contractions build up in length & intensity. They become more regular, until they are 5 minutes apart.

The first stage is the time to get ready. It’s the time to pack up if you have to leave the house to give birth. It’s time to rest and engage in some light activities. It’s time to nourish yourselves with nutritious food. The mood is usually upbeat, with excitement and anticipation.

Active labor is when the contractions are longer and much more intense. They are 3-5 minutes apart and lasting up to a minute long. It’s when things become serious. It’s when couples get focused and work together. The time for lighthearted chat & jokes is past.

It’s a time to get into a rhythm: rest between contractions & activity during contractions (like breathing and vocalizing). As the contractions get more and more intense, so does the need for support. The focus is completely on the birthing mama.

Transition is the last phase, right before the second stage of labor (pushing & giving birth) begins.

The contractions are now crazy intense. They’re 1 1/2-2 minutes apart and last as long as 90 seconds. They have to be taken one at a time. The contractions are powerful but efficient, and there’s still rest between them. The need for emotional support is greatest during this period.

the second stage of labor
Contractions are like waves, with breaks between each wave.

The second stage of labor

Stage 2 is all about pushing and giving birth. Once the cervix has completely dilated, the body switches from dilating to pushing. This doesn’t happen right away; it can take several contractions after full dilation before the mama feels the urge to push. For a lot of mamas, when they urge to push hits, they HAVE TO PUSH!

The pushing coincides with contractions, and vocalizing like an athlete can help. They can become alert and focused. It can be very instinctual, pushing along with the contractions, then resting between them.

This stage of labor ends when your baby is born and is held by mom. (She did all the work so she gets first dibs – plus she’s got the booby juice for the baby.)

The third stage of labor

Stage 3 is the recovery period after birth that includes delivering the placenta. Contractions are more like surges that deliver the placenta. The hard work is over – it’s time to meet the baby!

It’s a time of excitement/joy/bliss/relief/all of the above! It’s after the pain, with a beautiful new baby in your arms – and you’ll get a chance to hold her too. You’ll be asked if you want to cut the cord (yay, you get something to do). The baby might breastfeed for the first time. You might get to witness a breastcrawl, where the baby is on mom’s belly and shimmies over to a boob to start nursing. (This is also the time when you’ll start referring to breasts as boobs and boobies.)

This is a very special time to be with your baby – measuring, weighing and all that can wait because you’ll never have this special time again. The baby’s not going to get bigger or smaller in just a few hours.

the third stage of labor

Is there a fourth stage of labor?

Some folks split stage 3 into separate stages, one for delivery of the placenta and one for recovery. The placenta delivery happens within 20 minutes of birth. It doesn’t make sense to have a separate phase just for that when you’re already recovering. We’ll will stick to having 3 stages of labor.

Now you know the three stages of labor

We’ll be writing more about labor and delivery, so be sure to come back! You can also subscribe to our newsletter below and get updates delivered to your inbox. You’ll also get a birth preparation ebook and be notified when our upcoming course is ready.

Published by

Arp Laszlo

Father of 4, veteran of 3 homebirths. Maker of comics. Nerd, geek, family man & lover of beer.

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