Whether you give birth in a hospital setting, at a birthing center, or in your own home, you'll hear doctors, nurses, midwives, or doulas use a lot of medical terminology when discussing your stages of labor. Always be sure you're comfortable with what's being said and what it means – and if not, ask! This guide is a great place to get started, so you can feel totally engaged in and educated about the labor process.
Stage One: Prodromal Labor
This is the first stage of labor, when your cervix begins to soften, thin, and open very slightly. This stage can last for days or even weeks, and for many women, it may be unnoticeable, though others will feel slight pressure or achiness in their lower abdomen or in their back. Your cervix opening is referred to as dilation, and is usually measured in centimeters, from 0, or closed, to 10, or fully open, right as your baby emerges. Thinning out of the cervix is called effacement, and it's usually measured in percentages, so at the beginning you are 0% effaced, and by the end of labor, you are 100% effaced, which means your cervix is as thin as can be.
Stage Two: Early Labor
Early labor usually begins when your cervix is three or four centimeters dilated.This is the beginning of what most people think of as labor, including contractions that gradually get stronger, longer, and closer together. At any point during labor you may have rupture – that is, your water breaks – or your health care provider might discuss artifically rupturing the amniotic membrane to speed labor along.
Stage Three: Active Labor
Everyone's body is different, but generally active labor is said to begin when your contractions are about one minute long and only about three minutes apart. This stage is more painful, and is often when women request epidurals or other mention interventions, or embark on natural pain management techniques like deep breathing or massage.
As your cervix is opening, your baby is also descending lower in your pelvis. Healthcare providers refer to a baby who is in the right position low in the pelvis as engaged. The location of your baby's head is measured in numbers from -3 to zero. A baby at -3 is still in the position you have been carrying him in for your whole pregnancy; he is not engaged. As he lowers, the station numbers will go to -2, then -1. When your baby is at zero station, the means he has entered the birth canal.
Stage Four: Transition
This is the most painful stage of labor, but happily also the shortest. By now, strong contractions are coming much closer together, so there's not much of a break between one and the next. Your cervix will dilate from eight to ten centimeters, and your baby will descend into his final position, reading himself for pushing.
Stage Five: Delivery
For vaginal deliveries, this is the time to push! Ideally by this point you are 100% effaced, dilated fully to 10cm, and your baby is at station zero, lowered into the birth canal. Crowning is when your baby's head first pushes through the cervix and out into the world.
Then some more pushing and wow! – your baby is here!