A reassuring look at what happens leading up to and during each stage of delivery. Relax!

pregnant woman sitting on exercise ball
Credit: Aimee Herring

Before Labor

You have practice contractions. Around week 30, you may have begun to feel Braxton Hicks blips. Even if you know they're not real, tell your doc what you're experiencing.

There's discharge. As your cervix thins and opens, the mucus plug that's been protecting it falls out. You may notice blood-tinged vaginal discharge called bloody show.

Your cervix starts to dilate. About two to four weeks before delivery, your body "lightens" as the baby drops lower into your pelvis and pushes against your cervix, causing it to thin (efface) and open (dilate). This can continue for the remaining weeks until labor.

Your water breaks. If you're among the 10 percent of women whose amniotic sac ruptures, you'll feel a trickle or gush of colorless, odorless fluid. (Dark, greenish, bloody, or foul-smelling discharge requires immediate attention.) Most babies are delivered within 24 hours to prevent infection.

Stage 1: Labor

Your contractions get real. Mild to moderate ones happen every 5 to 30 minutes and last up to 90 seconds each. They'll peak in intensity and then subside until eventually they are frequent and longer. Most doctors suggest waiting until contractions are about 5 minutes apart and last 60 seconds, over the course of an hour, before you head to the hospital.

Active labor begins. Contractions occur every few minutes; the doc may rupture your amniotic sac. Use breathing techniques and request pain meds if you want them. This stage can last several hours.

Your body prepares. Your cervix dilates fully to 10 centimeters. Intense contractions can last up to 90 seconds and come every 30 seconds to 2 minutes. It's the most painful phase but also the shortest, lasting 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Stage 2: Birth

It's push time. Uterine contractions and pushing move the baby along; if there's little to no progress, a cesarean section is possible. You may feel a burning sensation as the head crowns (passes through the vagina). This stage takes 20 minutes to 2 hours.

Placenta Delivery

Mild contractions continue. You'll expel the placenta 5 to 30 minutes post-delivery. You may feel pain for several days as your uterus shrinks, but you'll probably be so absorbed by Baby that you won't really notice.

Originally published in American Baby magazine in 2011. Updated in 2014.

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American Baby