If you’re freaking out about the stages of labor, that’s understandable. Labor isn’t exactly known to be the most comfortable experience. But it doesn’t have to be totally toe-curling, it’s also a pretty empowering and fulfilling experience, too.
We know you’re going to do an incredible job. And when you meet your bundle of joy, it will have all been worth it.
Before we take a trip through the 4 stages of labor, let’s start by hitting some labor and delivery FAQs.
In this article: 📝
- How long does labor last?
- When does labor start?
- What are the 4 stages of labor?
- Cervix dilation chart during labor
- Stages of labor FAQs
How long does labor last?
No two childbirths are alike, so the question of how long the stages of labor lasts throws up a multitude of different answers.
We’ll give you a ballpark:
It could be as short as a few minutes (extremely rare) and as long as 75 days. So yes, this ballpark is a huge stadium.
Average labor time, however, is between 10 and 20 hours from start to finish.
And if you’ve already given birth vaginally, you may pass through the different stages of labor even more quickly.
When does labor start?
Generally speaking, you should expect the stages of labor to start anywhere from week 37 to week 42 of pregnancy.
If labor starts before 37 weeks, that’s classed as premature (or preterm).
Beyond 42 weeks is called post-term (or past due) ‒ if you’re over 42 weeks pregnant, your doctor might discuss inducing the stages of labor, so you can finally meet baby!
The four stages of labor begin with contractions that typically start milder and further apart.
At this point, they last for a minute or so and come about every 20 minutes.
They then gain ground and become more frequent and more regular, as part of the labor process.
What are the 4 stages of labor?
The stages of labor can be loosely divided into early labor where your body gears up for birth; the “pushing” stage where your little one makes an appearance in the world (yay!); the post-birth stage where the placenta is delivered; and recovery.
Let’s break down the 4 stages of labor:
First stage of labor
How long is the first stage of labor?
The first stage of labor is really where all the work happens.
Think about planning an event: the preparation phase is always longer, more stressful (and often more painful) than the actual thing.
So if you’re wondering “what is the longest stage of labor?”, this is it.
Just how long does early labor last? Well, as the first stage of labor is the longest of all the stages, typically lasting somewhere between 10 and 20 hours.
Your body is getting ready for the massive task ahead.
The first stage of labor is further divided into these 3 phases:
Latent phase of labor
At the beginning of the latent phase of labor, your cervix starts out closed and then opens up (dilates), thins out (effaces), and softens.
Early contractions help this labor process and will get your cervix to open up to approximately 2 inches.
The most important things to do in the latent stage of labor? Chill.
Relax, eat something nice, go for a gentle walk, change positions when you’re uncomfortable, have a bath.
If self-care was ever important, now’s the moment.
Don’t forget to also time your latent stage contractions so that you can tell your healthcare provider.
When it feels as though those contractions are getting longer and closer together, things are heating up a little and you’re likely moving to the next of the phases of labor…
Right. Ready? Let’s go.
It’s time to get to the location where you want to have this baby!
During active labor, your cervix will dilate further, providing an opening of about 4 inches by the end of this phase.
And it’s your remarkable body that’s making this happen.
Active labor contractions are getting closer together and gaining momentum.
You also may feel as though you’ve sprung a leak.
That could be your water breaking. You might have a bloody discharge, too. (That’s what’s known as the bloody show.)
And yes, things may be getting painful, nauseating, and downright uncomfortable.
It’s completely up to you whether you want to take medication during the active labor phase.
Also, it may sound like a very simple thing, but changing positions can do the world of good.
You might also find comfort by rolling on a pilates ball or getting a massage from someone you feel like being around at this point.
Transition phase of labor
What is the most painful stage of labor? you ask.
It’s probably the transition phase of labor. Um, ouch.
Transition labor can really be the toughest part.
Think of it as crossing the bridge between prep time and push time.
Contractions are frequent and packing a punch.
Second stage of labor
What is the second stage of labor called?
The second stage of labor is referred to as either the “pushing” stage or the fabulously dramatic “expulsion” stage of labor.
This is the stage where your baby is going to burst onto the scene.
The second stage of labor begins when the cervix is fully dilated.
As a result, those transition labor contractions that have been so hard at work to get you to this phase of labor start to ease up a little.
They become fewer and further between.
But while the intensity of transition labor contractions may be subsiding, the need to push steps in to take its place.
(Some mamas welcome this shift. Others would take the contractions over the pushing feeling any day.)
So when do you actually push? Well, our bodies are pretty amazing. They tell us.
As well as this, your healthcare provider will be there to coach you when to push.
Don’t be afraid to speak up. If you’d prefer to take direction from your own body rather than be coached, say so.
It’s also important to note that if you’ve had an epidural, the urge to push may not be as strong.
And then, magic happens: your baby’s head shows itself.
This is known as crowning.
Guided by your healthcare provider, your little one will head on their way through the birth canal and out to the other side.
Welcome to the world, little one!
The umbilical cord is cut and you can move onto the next of the stages of labor:
Third stage of labor
The baby is out but the placenta that kept them nourished and cozy while they were on the inside needs to escape, too.
That means the contraction party is not quite over yet.
The good news is, by the 3rd stage of labor, contractions are far less painful, even though they come quite frequently.
The job of these final contractions is to separate the placenta from the uterus so that it can make its way out the same way your baby did.
And then you can look forward to one of the greatest snuggles of your life.
(Of course, this may come hours or days later if your baby needs some extra help on the outside.)
Fourth stage of labor
What’s the 4th stage of labor? Now that baby and placenta are both out, surely there can’t be another stage of labor!
Well, rest and relax now, mama ‒ the fourth stage of labor is recovery.
You’ve just brought a new life (maybe more!) into the world, now you need a little time to recover.
You may also experience some more contractions during the fourth stage of labor, as your body pushes out anything else that’s left in your womb.
Cervix dilation chart during labor
Sometimes, your cervix dilation can be a good indicator of which of the stages of labor you’re currently experiencing, or how close you are to the next stage of labor.
So if you’re wondering “what stage of labor is 4cm?” or any other dilation amount, we’ve got you covered:
1cm dilated: Latent phase of labor (first stage of labor)
2cm dilated: Latent phase of labor (first stage of labor)
3cm dilated: Latent phase of labor (first stage of labor)
4cm dilated: Latent phase of labor (first stage of labor)
5cm dilated: Active labor (second stage of labor)
6cm dilated: Active labor (second stage of labor)
7cm dilated: Pushing stage (third stage of labor)
8 cm dilated: Pushing stage (third stage of labor)
9 cm dilated: Pushing stage (third stage of labor)
10 cm dilated: Pushing stage (third stage of labor)
Stages of labor FAQs
If you’ve entered into the stages of labor, you probably have a lot of questions.
It’s only natural ‒ this is a pretty big deal! So let us ease your mind a little with these stages of labor FAQs:
What is the hardest stage of labor?
It’s all relative ‒ each mama has her own different pain thresholds, but, according to our community of mamas on Peanut, the transition phase of labor can be the toughest to get through.
The transition phase of labor is when your contractions increase in frequency and intensity.
How many stages of labor are there?
Some medical professionals say there are only 3 stages of labor, but others insist on 4 stages of labor, stressing that the recovery period should be included.
We’ve included all 4 stages of labor in this guide, to make sure you have all the information you need for this next phase of your life.
What to expect during labor for first-time moms
Creating a birth plan is a very good idea as it gives you more agency when it comes to the stages of labor and delivery.
Having the help of a doula or birth coach can also make the whole experience far more pleasant, and guide you through the phases of labor.
However, like so many things in life, the stages of labor don’t always go as planned—and that’s totally fine.
Sometimes a vaginal birth is not possible for various reasons.
Sometimes the latent phase of labor goes on forever.
Sometimes it happens early and at a seriously inconvenient time.
Our best advice for first-time mamas: it’s totally okay to acknowledge all the feelings that come up when you didn’t quite have the “perfect birth” you envisioned.
What is the longest stage of labor?
Typically, the first stage of labor ‒ the latent stage ‒ is the longest phase of labor.
The latent phase of labor can last anywhere from 10 to 20 hours ‒ sometimes more, sometimes less.
What are the cardinal stages of labor?
Cardinal stages of labor aren’t used as often as the standard phases of labor we’ve discussed in this guide.
Some medical journals refer to seven cardinal movements as the stages of labor: engagement, descent, flexion, internal rotation, extension, external rotation, and expulsion.
However, more recently, these have been edited to just four cardinal phases of labor: flexion, internal rotation, extension, and external rotation.
What is the 411 Rule in labor?
If you’re in the throes of the first stage of labor, you might be wondering when is best to get into battle positions ‒ whether that means going to the hospital or setting up where you want to have your baby.
Generally speaking, most medical professionals recommend the 411 Rule: going to where you want to have your baby when your contractions are around 4 minutes apart, lasting roughly 1 minute each.
However, some doulas and doctors are advocates of the 311 Rule (contractions at 3 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute each) or the 511 Rule (contractions at 5 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute each).
Now you know what to expect during the 4 stages of labor, it’s time to meet baby!
Keen to share your experiences navigating the phases of labor, or want to show off the latest addition to your family? Join us on Peanut, we can’t wait to see you!
Finally, look after yourself. You’ve done an amazing job getting this far.
💡 More from The 411:
What is Precipitous Labor?
How to Induce Labor (Yourself)
Your Intro to Lamaze Breathing: What You Need to Know
Preparing for Childbirth: Helpful Things to Know
What To Expect from Induction of Labor
What are the Ways to Induce Labor?
18 Labor Tips For Moms
How to Prepare for a Baby: 11 Tips
Signs That Labor is 24–48 Hours Away
Why Can’t You Eat During Labor?
Castor Oil for Labor: What’s That About?
Safe Ways to Go into Labor Tonight
Your Labor and Delivery Playlist
Late Decelerations: All You Need to Know About
Evening Primrose Oil for Labor: What’s the Story?