This information comes directly from my Holistic Childbirth Education course so if this resonates, let's book a consultation to see if the full course would be the right fit for you. After all, you can never be too prepared for the arrival of your baby!
The three stages of labor can be confusing to parents since there are also three phases of labor within the first stage. Those three phases are early, active, and transition, and then we move to the second stage of labor (crowning and pushing), and then finally we enter our third and final stage of labor (delivery of the placenta).
Early labor is typically the longest phase and can start and stop for a while before things really get moving. During this phase, dilation is between 0-6cm and your contractions can be mild but gradually will get stronger as time goes by. Contractions will be about 5-20 minutes apart and last only about 30-45 seconds. The best advice I can give to you during this phase is, to ignore it. Go about your normal routine until you can no longer ignore your contractions. PRO TIP: If you want a "shorter labor" you must not pay attention to your early labor. Your body will tell you when it's time to go to the hospital or birthing center, avoid going too soon.
Active labor is generally around 1-8 hours long and during this phase, dilation will be between 6-8cm. Your contractions will be close, regular, and strong at about 3-5 minutes apart and last one minute or longer. You will no longer be able to ignore them nor will you be able to talk through them. In this phase, most mamas turn inwards as they attempt to quiet their minds and get to their birthing facility. Now would be the time to put those coping techniques that you learned to good use. Position changes at a minimum of every 30 minutes and alternating between upright and resting will be the most beneficial to mama and baby.
This will be your shortest phase of labor which is delightful because it's also the most intense. It can last from anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour. Dilation will be between 8-10cm and your contractions will be about 2-3 minutes apart and last around 60-90 seconds. This is what I like to call the 'make it or break it' phase. Most mamas say they can't do it any longer and I gently remind them that they are "already doing the damn thing". The only thing mama needs to do in this phase is just breathe. Breathe baby down. Those three simple words have calmed the mind of anxious mamas more than once before.
After the transition, everything may just come to a halt for a few minutes. Contractions may stop, dilation is complete, and mama has no urge yet to push. What the heck? This is called the 'resting stage' and some women experience this while many don't. If you are lucky enough to experience this, take this time to rest and recoup some of the energy that is needed during the second stage that will soon be arriving.
Crowning and Pushing:
On average this can last anywhere from about 30 minutes to 2 hours. Contractions are about 3-5 minutes apart and last between 60-90 seconds. Mama will feel an overwhelming sense of pressure and pushing may relieve that pressure. If mama was feeling down and out during transition, she has surely gained her confidence back and is usually energized during this phase because this is when she gets to hold her sweet, sweet baby for the first time!
Delivery of the Placenta:
This is usually fairly short lasting between 5-30 minutes. After mama has delivered her baby she will feel some period-like cramping but absolutely nothing like those contractions. Oftentimes, these cramps can go unnoticed because she is soaking in her recent experience and holding the precious baby whom she worked so hard to bring earthside. However, it is still important to remember to breathe during this stage as the placenta works its way out of the uterus.
I'm going to assume you're reading this before you are ever in actual labor so let's take a step back. Now that we have gone through our stages and phases of labor let's envision stage two again. I'm going to quickly set the scene: You have labored like a goddess for a few hours, now baby is almost here, the energy in the room is building and you are so stoaked. Your care provider looks at you all gowned up and asks you if you want a mirror or to touch their head, what do you say? What about immediate skin-to-skin contact, what does that look like to you? How about immediate or delayed cord clamping, have you looked into the benefits and risks of both? I'm asking these questions out of a place of love rather than judgment or to induce anxiety. As a doula, I'm here to help you make informed consent and put your birth back into your hands. If you aren't sure about the questions I just asked, take some time to reflect on them and figure out what they mean to you.
I hope this has helped you to understand what labor can look like and what can be expected. Finally, please remember that nothing outside of you has control over you, mama.