There are four different stages of labour in pregnancy– First (Early), Second, Third and Recovery.
For most women, labor will start in the middle of the night when they are most relaxed and early labor may actually extend to a few days.
It is normal for the cervix to start shortening (effacing a )few days prior and you may not even feel any discomfort or contractions.
In some cases,your cervix also starts dilating which means opening about 1-2 cms which is actually early labor. Even at this point, you may not feel any discomfort or contractions
For most first time moms, labor can last for 12-24 hours and for second time moms, it can be about 6-10 hours.
How does the start of labor feel like?
The first stage of labor is when the cervix - the mouth of the uterus at the vaginal end – thins out and opens. The thinning of the cervix is known as effacement and the opening of the cervix is called dilation. Effacement is measured in percentage – 0-100%. This means that the cervix is paper thin at 100% effaced. Dilation is measured in centimeters – 0 to10 cms. At 10 cms, the cervix is considered fully open and this is the size of the neonates head.
The first stage of labor is further divided into three phases – Early Labor, Active Labor and Transition. Here is what you can expect in each of these phases.
During this phase, the cervix dilates from 0-3 to 4 centimeters. Contractions may be 5-30 minutes apart and can last for about 20 seconds each. For a first time mom early labor can last for 12 to 13 hours. At times, these contractions are so mild that you may actually ignore them or mistake them for Braxton-Hicks Contractions.
When in the early stage, the labor contractions feel likel tightening in your vaginal area and cramps in your lower abdomen (just like in menstrual periods). If they are real labor contractions, then they should progressively become stronger and longer. If you are able to identify this as the start of labor, you may experience excitement and relief that the waiting period of nine months is finally coming to an end and you will soon meet your baby!
During labour, you might have back ache and mild discomfort but will able to walk and talk and act normal.
It is a good idea to eat a light meal and rest at home during this time if you have had a healthy pregnancy and are expecting an uncomplicated birth. In this phase, some of you might feel a strong urge to tidy up and prepare the house for the arrival of the baby (also known as nesting urge).
It is advised not to give in to that urge. Save your energy for the next stages of labour and the childbirth process.
Generally, you will feel very much in control during early labor and will be confident enough to cope with the delivery process.
During this phase, the contractions continue and they are closer together as well as much more intense. Contractions are coming 2-5 minutes apart and may last for about 60 seconds each. They are much more painful and noticeable. The cervix dilates from 4 to 7 centimeters and this is the time when you must head to the hospital. The cervix is dilating at a much faster pace and as labor progresses, this is what will cause the bag of waters to bulge through and may break. This will result in a gush of fluid.
The breaking of the bag of waters also causes the contractions to pick up in intensity. As the contractions become stronger, you will start focusing on them alone. You will not want to talk and will become more intent on managing the pain. You will not want to be left alone, will need support and comfort measures. You may also feel irritable if outside distractions take away from your focus.
As the contractions pick up intensity you might even start asking for pain relief options even though you may have decided on a completely natural childbirth. It is important to practice your breathing exercises to help cope with the intensity of the contractions. Focus on positive thoughts, relaxing images, soothing music and anything else that works for you. It is a good idea to have your husband and other close family members near you. Remember to change positions frequently and this can include walking, using a birth ball and even taking a warm shower.
This is the phase when the intensity of the contractions is at its peak. The body is preparing to move to the next stage of labor which is the expulsion stage. This phase can last for 1 to 3 hours and the contractions come as frequently as one to two minutes apart. Each contraction can also last for about 60-90 seconds which means that you hardly get a break before the next contraction sets in. The cervix will be 7 to 10 centimeters wide open now.
At this time, the baby also moves further down and you will feel a very strong urge to bear down and push. You might feel that you are losing control and may ask for painkillers. You may also feel exhausted, frustrated and very irritable. Even though you want comfort you might actually refuse to be touched. You will also feel very hot and sweaty and may even refuse to try different positions.
Using a cold compress or an ice pack and your breathing techniques can help a great deal in the transition stage of labour. You will feel a lot of rectal pressure as the baby’s head descends. If the bag of waters has not yet ruptured, the doctor may break the bag of waters in preparation for birth.
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