Many books and providers divide labor into three stages. To you, labor will be a continuous experience, and you will probably think of it only as "early" and "active" labor according to how intense the contractions are. However, because your practitioner and labor nurses may divide the labor into stages when talking to you or to each other, it's useful to know the definitions:
Stage 1. This is the longest part of labor, usually defined as that part of labor where the cervix thins and opens (effaces and dilates). This stage is further divided into "early" and "active" first-stage labor. During early first-stage labor, your cervix will dilate from 0 to 4 centimeters; during active first-stage labor, you will dilate to about 8 centimeters. Then there is a transition phase as your cervix finishes dilating to 10 centimeters in preparation for birthing your baby. During transition, the rhythmic, cyclic pattern of your active labor may be disrupted. Now the contractions might be much more erratic and powerful, with less time between contractions for you to rest.
Stage 2. Contractions are shorter, more intense, and more frequent during second-stage labor as your uterus pushes your baby down the birth canal and out of your body through the opened cervix.
Stage 3. You will deliver the placenta and membranes in the third stage of labor.
Originally published in You & Your Baby: Pregnancy.
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