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What Happens During Labor

By Kerry Weiss
Reviewed by Alyssa Quimby, M.D.
November 27, 2023

Want to know what happens when you go into labor? No two labors are the same. But there are some things that happen with most people.

Here is a guide on what to expect in each stage of labor and birth.

Early Labor

In early labor, you may notice pink or red bloody discharge from your vagina.

You may also have mild contractions that feel similar to period cramps. These labor pains happen when the muscles in the uterus (where the baby is growing) squeeze and relax. “[This] causes the cervix [the opening of the uterus] to open or dilate, soften, and thin,” says Jennifer Ludgin, M.D. Ludgin is an ob-gyn at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Your cervix changes so you can push out your baby.

Early labor can take hours or last for days. You can spend this time at home until contractions get stronger and happen more often.

Try these tips to help with early labor:

  • Go for a walk
  • Take a shower or bath
  • Listen to calm music
  • Breathe deeply
  • Have someone massage your back or hips
  • Rest

Active Labor

You will start active labor when your cervix dilates to 6 centimeters, says Ngina Connors, M.D. Connors is an ob-gyn at Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Labor pains will get even stronger and happen more often. You may also have leg cramps, get back pain, or feel sick to your stomach. This is when to call your doctor or go to the hospital.

Ludgin says you should go to the hospital when your labor pains:

  • Are 5 minutes apart for an hour or more,
  • Are painful enough that you have to stop and breathe through them, and
  • Do not improve with water and rest.

Also, go to the hospital if you:

  • Are bleeding (more than spotting),
  • Think your water broke, or
  • Do not feel your baby moving.

The same tips that help in early labor can help in active labor. You can also ask your doctor about pain medicine options.

This stage lasts until you are fully dilated. That means the cervix has opened to 10 centimeters.

Pushing

Next, you can start to push your baby out. Do not start pushing without telling your doctor.

Your doctor and nurse can coach you on when and how to push. A doula or birth coach can help, if you have one. You can also listen to your body and push when you feel the urge.

Pushing can take a few minutes up to a few hours. The baby’s head is the hardest part to push out. The rest of the body is often easier.

After Birth

After the baby is born, you deliver the placenta, or the afterbirth. “You may feel some pressure as it comes out,” Connors says.

You will likely be focused on meeting your baby as this happens.

Recovery

Expect to stay in the hospital for two days after a vaginal delivery. You will stay longer after a cesarean section, or C-section.

Your care team will help you with things you and your baby need, Connors says. They will give you directions to follow after you go home. Talk to your doctor about questions or concerns you have.

Enjoy this time with your newborn. “The goal is to allow your body to heal,” Ludgin says. “And for you to bond with your baby.”

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