Labor is the first stage of childbirth. During labor the muscles of your womb (uterus) squeeze over and over to push your baby out. These squeezes are called contractions. Contractions stop and start on their own. You don't have any control over them. They get stronger as labor goes along.
Delivery is the second stage of childbirth, when the baby passes through your birth canal and comes out.
You'll usually go into labor anywhere from 2 weeks before to 2 weeks after your due date
The start of labor usually feels like back pain or like menstrual cramps that get more painful and closer together over time
Labor usually lasts 12 to 18 hours in your first pregnancy and about half that in later ones
During labor, doctors and nurses check you frequently to look for complications
Medicines or special relaxation exercises can help you cope with the pain of childbirth
It's time to go to the hospital (or birthing center) when one of the following happens:
Your cervix is the lower part of your uterus where it connects to your vagina. The cervix has a small opening that stays tightly closed while you're pregnant. During labor, your contractions gradually pull the cervix open until it's wide enough for your baby to come out.
Labor has 2 parts:
During early labor:
During active labor:
Your water breaking is when the amniotic sac breaks and amniotic fluid comes out of your vagina. This may happen before labor starts or during labor.
You can't deliver your baby until your cervix is fully open and your water has broken.
The main signs of labor are:
Before contractions or back pain, early signs that labor is about to start include:
If your water breaks, you should call your doctor or midwife right away. Usually, labor starts within 24 hours. However, if it doesn’t start within several hours, your doctor or midwife may start your labor with medicines.
If your water breaks more than 6 weeks before your due date, your doctor may give you medicine to stop labor. This lets the baby grow a little more before being born.
You should go to your hospital or birthing center when one of the following happens:
A doctor or midwife will check to see whether you're actually in labor. Near their due date, some women have cramps that feel like labor but aren't. If you’re not in labor yet, you'll be sent home.
If you're in labor, your doctor will:
If you've delivered a baby before and it was fast (took less than 6 hours), you should let your doctor know as soon as you think labor has started. You'll likely deliver quickly because each labor is usually shorter than the one before.
During labor, the main thing that tells doctors how the baby's doing is:
Doctors may check the baby’s heartbeat using:
If your baby’s heartbeat is too fast or too slow, your baby may be having complications. Your doctors may do an ultrasound of the baby.
The amount of pain during labor varies. Some women need more pain relief than others during labor. Taking childbirth classes during pregnancy and having a support person with you can help you feel more comfortable during labor and may lower your need for pain medicine.
During pregnancy, you'll talk with your doctor or midwife about what kind of pain relief you want. Pain medicines during labor include:
IV opioid pain medicines, such as morphine or fentanyl, which make you more comfortable but may cause your baby to breathe too slowly if you get the medicine too close to when the baby is delivered
An epidural block, which is an injection of numbing medicine (local anesthetic) or pain medicine into your lower back to numb nerves around your spinal cord
A nerve block, in which doctors inject numbing medicine inside your vagina to block pain signals from major nerves
Local anesthesia, shots of numbing medicine around the outside of your vagina just before the baby comes out
Natural childbirth uses relaxation and breathing techniques instead of medicine to control labor pains and lower your need for pain medicine. Some women doing natural childbirth don't use any pain medicine. To prepare, you and a support person usually take childbirth classes over several weeks to learn about labor and how to breathe and relax through it.