The Stages of Natural Labor and Birth
Discover what happens during each stage of labor and birth so you feel prepared and confident. The female body is pretty remarkable, and birth usually works just fine – you can have a natural labor and delivery 🙂 Understanding what's happening inside your body and with your baby helps you prepare for a great birthday!
Here's a video I did for you covering what to expect during childbirth:
Knowing what happens during birth is the first step. The second step is knowing what to do when labor hits.
Your Body and Baby Prepare for Birth
Your baby is sheltered within your uterus – a muscular bag within your body (also called your womb). Take a look at the picture to get an idea of what your baby's environment looks like.
Your baby's placenta is attached to the wall of the uterus and to your baby by his umbilical cord. The “bag of water” or amniotic sac surrounds your baby and cushions him within your uterus.
The opening of your uterus is called your cervix – during pregnancy it's tightly closed and sealed to keep your baby safe.
The cervix opens into the birth canal during labor and birth. Your baby travels through your cervix and down the birth canal, or vagina, and passes through the vaginal opening and out into the world.
Getting Ready for Labor and Birth – and the First Stage
Your body primes itself for labor and birth. You might feel Braxton-hicks contractions for several weeks. These are called “practice contractions” – they prepare your uterus and your body to give birth.
At end of your pregnancy the Braxton-hicks contractions begin to change your cervix. The cervix is an elongated tube (think of a turtleneck sweater to picture it).
Effacement means the cervix starts to flatten out. A turtleneck sweater pulled gently down over your head flattens in a similar way. Dilation means that the cervix begins to open up – much like a turtleneck sweater will do as your head pushes through it.
At the end of pregnancy your cervix might start dilating and effacing – or it may not. Don't worry or get excited either way!
Dilation and effacement are notoriously inaccurate ways for telling how close you are to going into labor. You may not be effaced or dilated at all and have your baby that night. You could be 3cms dilated and 100% effaced – but labor and birth are still three weeks away.
Effacement is measured as a percentage and dilation in centimeters. 10cms is fully dilated, and 100% is fully effaced.
Your uterus contracts to open and efface your cervix. The muscles of your uterus pull at your cervix, causing it to melt away and leaving you open for your baby to travel out into the world.
The work of opening your cervix is called the first stage of labor. Some women go through this stage quickly, and others more slowly. It depends on your body and on your baby. The best thing to do is to be patient and trust your body. Movement and changing positions can also help.
Down and Out – the Second Stage
Now it's time for your baby to begin his journey down and out.
Your pelvis isn't a rigid structure – it's actually flexible!. The front of your pelvis is a joint. This joint is filled and cushioned with cartilage, a flexible substance. This joint allows your pelvis to have “give” and to open up more for your baby to pass through.
Different positions cause your pelvis to widen or narrow. The position of your pelvis can help or slow down your baby's descent through your pelvic bones and birth canal.
Lying down on your back is probably the worst position you can labor and birth in. Choose a position that feels comfortable for you. The position you are most open in is unique to your body. Some positions to try (see which makes you feel “open” now) are:
- Side-lying (someone supports your leg)
- Sitting on a birth stool or birth ball
- Hands-and knees
When your dilation is complete and your baby is ready to move down the birth canal, it widens for him. It becomes engorged with blood – pushing your bladder forward and your rectum back. This leaves it open for your baby to travel through.
Remember, labor and birth are not purely mechanical – hormones play a huge part. Click here to find out how hormones impact your birthing – and how you can make sure they're able to do their job.
Crowning and Birth
Your uterine muscles push down, moving your baby through your birth canal. You may feel a strong urge to push and you can bear down along with your body.
This may feel wonderful – it does for many women. For some women it feels powerful, almost like they are rushing along in a river.
Your baby begins “crowning” as a bit of his or her head pushes up against the vaginal opening. Soon your baby's head moves up further and begins to be born. The skin and muscles around your vaginal opening stretch to accommodate your baby. Your perineum, the skin between the vaginal and rectal openings, stretches the most.
Your doctor or midwife can support your perineum as your baby is born. Hot compresses help the skin to soften and stretch. Oil can also be massaged into the skin. Going slowly and letting your body tell you when to push is the best way to prevent tears.
You may want to do some light massage with oil during pregnancy. Warm oil massage helps ease postpartum bruising as well. If you're having a water birth, the water helps support your perineum.
Your baby's head crowns and is born, then his/her body rotates so the body can be born. You may push his shoulders out and feel the rest of his body slip out the rest of the way. A big baby could require a little more pushing!
A New Beginning
Natural childbirth means this special, intimate moment unfolds as nature intended. You can take a minute to study your baby between your legs (this pause lets blood flow down the umbilical cord to your baby) then pull your baby right up onto your chest. Take the time to get to know your new baby. You baby studies you, and you can study her!
You're in a timeless, overwhelming, amazing, and magical moment (just to name a few feelings!) Check out your baby. Offer your breast, but give him time to take it and to adjust. Some babies simply want to look at you and the new world for up to an hour. Natural childbirth gives the gift of absolute clarity and awareness for both you and your baby.
Your baby's birth marks the end of the second stage. Your hard work is mostly done now! You can cuddle your baby and truly enjoy him. Your baby is still connected to you via his umbilical cord. From 40-60% of your baby's blood is still circulating, so delay cord clamping. Your baby gets a vital secondary supply of oxygen from this blood, stem cells, and a huge amount of iron.
Finale – the Third Stage
Your baby's placenta is born after your baby. Pushing out the placenta is the third stage of labor and birth. Contractions start again shortly after your baby is born. The muscles of your uterus are neatly shearing the placenta off the uterine wall.
Have quiet, uninterrupted time to study, feel, and smell your baby. It's the best way to have a safe third stage. This bonding time boosts your hormone levels and tell your body to work quickly and efficiently, minimizing blood loss and starting the healing process. Being skin-to-skin with your baby at this time regulates your baby's temperature, heart rate, breathing patterns, and even blood sugar levels.
You can squat over a bowl or pad to deliver your baby's placenta. Since it has no bones, it's pretty easy to push out! Once your baby's placenta is born, the hard work of labor and birth are finally over.
Your doctor or midwife checks on you frequently to make sure your uterus is firming up and your bleeding is going well. You can truly settle in and enjoy your sweet baby while they monitor you both.
Your amazing body and your amazing baby have done their job. You're a powerful woman to have given birth to your child. Enjoy!
- Simple Steps to Prepare for a Natural Birth
- Starting Labor – What to expect as labor begins
- What Does a Contraction Feel Like?
- Natural Pain Relief and Making Progress in Labor – how to stay comfortable and keep things moving smoothly
Umbilical cord clamping after birth
BMJ 2007; 335 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39282.440787.80 (Published 16 August 2007)
“Preventing Postpartum Haemorrhage.” Michel Odent. Midwifery Today Spring 2013, Issue 105;
“The First Hour After Birth: A Baby's 9 Instinctive Stages” The Magical Hour