It’s impossible to know exactly how a birth will go, because it’s a dynamic process and unexpected twists and turns can arise. But no matter how it unfolds, knowing (in general) what to expect can help you feel more calm and confident during the process.
Let’s take a look at the basics of giving birth:
Signs of Labor
As you approach your due date, these signs may indicate that labor is near. Be sure to check in with your doctor or midwife for guidance if you think labor is starting.
Feeling the baby drop lower. Also known as “lightening,” this will shift pressure from your lungs to your bladder. You’ll have an easier time breathing, but you’ll feel the urge to pee more often.
Rhythmic contractions that get steadily stronger and closer together. Labor contractions cause your belly to get hard, and then relax, at regular intervals. Another type, called “Braxton Hicks” contractions, are not signs of labor. Braxton Hicks contractions are less intense, irregular, and may stop if you change position.
Water breaking. This is the rupturing of the amniotic sac surrounding your baby, and it feels like a trickle or gush of odorless liquid coming from your vagina. If your water breaks at home, be sure to call your doctor or midwife right away. If you don’t deliver your baby within 24 hours you could be at risk of infection or other complications.
Lower back pain that’s new or intensifying.
Pink or brown vaginal discharge. Also known as “bloody show,” this is a sign that blood vessels in your cervix are rupturing as it changes in preparation for labor.
Stages of Labor
Stage 1: Early & Active Labor
Early Labor — During early labor your cervix opens (dilates) and gets thinner and shorter (effaces). You may feel mild contractions. Early labor can last for hours or days. If your pregnancy is uncomplicated, it’s best to go through early labor at home where you can walk freely, change positions, or soak in a tub — whatever helps you feel more comfortable.
Active Labor — During active labor, your cervix dilates from 6 to 10 centimeters and contractions become intense and close together. This is the time to get to the place where you’ve chosen to give birth. If that’s a hospital, ask for pain medication if you want it. On average, the cervix opens one centimeter per hour during active labor.
Stage 2: Delivering the Baby
It’s time to meet your baby! During this stage your doctor or midwife will coach you through pushing at regular intervals. The length of this stage is different for everyone, but tends to be longer if it’s your first time giving birth.
If you asked for an epidural you’ll likely need to stay on your back in bed while you deliver your baby, because you may not feel steady enough to move around. If you opted for a different type of pain medication (or none at all), you may be able to push in different positions (crouching, for example).
Once your baby is delivered (and as long as he doesn’t need medical attention), you’ll get to hold him. Different facilities have different procedures for starting post-birth care (cutting the umbilical cord, weighing, bathing, etc.) so it’s important to communicate ahead of time if you want to hold or breastfeed your baby immediately after he’s born. A Birth Plan is a great way to do this. When you hold/breastfeed your baby, be sure to do it skin-to-skin.
Stage 3: Delivering the Placenta
Right after delivering your baby, your doctor or midwife will ask you to push again — this time to deliver the placenta. Then, if there was any tearing in the vaginal area, it will be stitched up. During all of this you’ll continue to feel mild contractions as your uterus returns to its normal size.
What about Cesarean-sections?
In some cases a C-section (surgical removal of a baby) is planned ahead of time, and in other cases it becomes medically necessary during the course of a planned vaginal birth. You can read more about C-sections, why they might be necessary, and what to expect during and after the procedure here.