First Stage of Labor
Be Empowered Birth Series
FIRST STAGE OF LABOR
The first stage of labor can be divided into three phases: early labor, active labor, and transition. In the first stage of labor our bodies main job is cervical dilation and effacement. Let's look at each of these three phases and what they often look like.
Early labor is often the longest part of the first stage of labor. It can last anywhere from a few hours to even a few days. In early labor contractions can look very different from person to person. Contractions can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes a part, and last anywhere from 30 - 60 seconds. Contractions in early labor are usually mild, and some women have said they feel like menstrual cramps while other women have said they felt more of a low backache. It is also common for them to feel similar to braxton hicks contractions, just with a little bit more intensity. It is normal to have loose stools or even diarrhea, and also see some blood - tinged mucus. During early labor your cervix is effacing (thinning), and also dilating to about 6 cm.
Active labor comes next, and usually is characterized by your cervix dilating from 6 cm to 8 cm. It contains more intense contractions, and the contractions will continue to become longer, stronger, and become closer together. Contractions are at least every 5 minutes or closer, and they last at least a minute or longer. It can last as little as an hour or up to 6 hours or longer. It’s good to remind yourself that there is a wide variety of normal, and active labor can also look different from woman to woman. Another thing that is happening in active labor is that the baby is being pushed down during contractions, and the station of baby is changing. As baby descends more into the pelvis, a woman will begin to feel a sensation of "fullness" or more pressure.
Transition is characterized by the cervix dilating from 8 cm to 10 cm, or being complete, while the baby is also descending further down into the birth canal. Contractions can be as close as every 2 minutes, sometimes even closer. They are still lasting at least 60 - 90 seconds, and there is less of a break between the contractions. Transition is more often the shortest part of labor, lasting about an hour. Remember, there is a large variation of normal so it can be shorter or last longer than an hour. Transition frequently comes with some physical signs that the other two phases do not. Some examples are hot flashes, nausea, vomiting, being shaky, increased pressure. It is completely normal to become shaky, often times a laboring woman might feel like it is an uncontrollable shaking. This is the release of hormones that are released when preparing to enter the next phase of birth.
COMFORT MEASURES FOR FIRST STAGE OF LABOR
Comfort measures are tools and techniques used to help a laboring women with contractions. There are several comfort measures that are commonly helpful in each phase of the first stage of labor. In fact, the more we utilize comfort measures in labor, the more likely we are to manage the intensity of contractions. (Did you know hiring a birth doula can help you and your birth partner determine the best comfort measures for you?)
In early labor, having a change of activity can be a really helpful thing. If you have been laying down and resting, try taking a walk outside or sitting on the birthing ball. Sometimes giving our bodies something different to do and focus on will help you as you are going throughout early labor. Eating and drinking are important, especially in early labor because labor is often viewed as a marathon. Lastly, be sure to rest as much as possible in early labor.
Active labor begins the phase of it being harder to go through. Some comfort measure that are often helpful include taking a bath or shower to help you relax and getting your mind off of every contraction. Counter pressure, doula hip squeezes, massages, and rice socks. Every woman is different, and what is comforting to one might not be comforting to the next. Being aware of this, and having quite a few different options to try is a wise thing.
With transition, the biggest encouragement I can give you is to listen to your body and follow its cues. If you think a certain position would be nice, or doing something specific sounds good to you, then listen to your body and try it. Some positions that are commonly useful is sitting on a birth ball, standing up and swaying, squatting, hands and knees, and slow dancing. Vocalizing is so often useful and helpful during transition. Lastly, being mindful of your breathing is important, and can be a good distraction for you to focus on.
Our bodies accomplish so much with each stage of early labor. It’s important to remember that we can't predict how long the first stage of labor will last. Prepare your mind to be flexible and accepting of how your body goes through the first stage of labor.
Listen to your body as you go throughout each stage, and surround yourself with a patient and kind birth team to support you and serve you.
Enjoyed reading about the First Stage of Labor? Our Be Empowered Childbirth Education classes focus on providing you with information about each stage while practicing comfort measures and positions. Join us for a group, private or one-day intensive class!