The 3 Stages of Labor: What You Need to Know

Team Peanut8 months ago6 min read

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.

Birthing ball during labor

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.

Table of Contents 📝

  • How long does labor last?
  • When does labor start?
  • Your guide to the 3 stages of labor

Before we take a trip through the 3 stages of labor, let’s start by hitting some labor and delivery FAQs:

How long does labor last?

No two childbirths are alike, so the question of how long 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, labor is usually even quicker.

When does labor start?

Labor begins 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.

Your guide to the 3 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!); and the post-birth stage where the placenta is delivered.

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.

As a result, the first stage of labor is the longest of all the stages, typically lasting somewhere between 12 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 this phase, your cervix starts out closed and then opens up (dilates), thins out (effaces), and softens. Early labor contractions help this process and will get your cervix to open up to approximately 2 inches.

The most important things to do in this stage? 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. And time your 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 phase.

Active 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. 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 mucousy 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 at this 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 who you feel like being around at this point.


What is the most painful stage of labor? you ask. It’s probably this one. Um, ouch. This 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 2nd stage of labor called?

The second stage of labor is referred to as either the pushing stage or the fabulously dramatic expulsion stage. This is the stage where your baby is going to burst onto the scene.

The second stage of labor kicks off when your cervix is fully dilated. As a result, those contractions that have been so hard at work to get you to this phase start to ease up a little. They become fewer and further between.

But while the intensity of 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. (And 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.

The umbilical cord is cut and you can move onto the final stage:

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 this stage, 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.)

There you have it. Easy as 1, 2, 3. (Kinda.)

Creating a birth plan is a very good idea as it gives you more agency when it comes to labor and delivery. Having the help of a doula or birth coach can also make the whole experience far more pleasant.

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 labor goes on forever. Sometimes it happens early and at a seriously inconvenient time.

It’s totally okay to acknowledge all the feelings that come up when you didn’t quite have the “perfect birth” you envisioned.

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)