If you’re pregnant and getting ready to have your baby, taking a tour of your hospital's "Labor and Delivery" ward to find out more about what will happen on the big day isn't the worst idea. And since we're used to seeing the words "labor and delivery" together, it’s easy to think they're the same thing. Turns out, they're not. While they're both typically part of the childbirth process, there are important differences between labor and delivery that every soon-to-be parent should know.
According to What to Expect, "labor" refers to the long process your body goes through to prepare for childbirth. During this time your uterus contracts and your brain releases hormones to make your cervix thin and dilate. It can take days, or even weeks, of labor to get to the point when you are ready to give birth. The Mayo Clinic explains that "delivery" actually refers to the second stage of childbirth, which involves pushing your baby out of your uterus and through the birth canal (if you have a vaginal birth).
As Certified Nurse Midwife Anette Ferrell, MSN, ARNP, CNM, at Hibiscus Women's Center in Orlando, Fla. told Romper via email, childbirth experiences can actually vary considerably, so not every single childbirth experience follows the aforementioned pattern. Some pregnant people never experience labor and, as a result, need an induction of labor or C-section to safely deliver their babies. Other women choose to be induced during an elective induction or have an elective C-section, and never experience labor at all.
So with all that in mind, here's everything you need to know about differences between labor and delivery:
Labor & Delivery Are Different Parts Of The Birth Process
According to What To Expect, labor and delivery are two different stages of childbirth.
Labor is the first stage of childbirth. It includes three phases — early labor, active labor, and transitional labor. Early labor happens when your brain releases hormones like oxytocin to stimulate uterine contractions and cause your cervix to efface (become thinner) and dilate (get bigger). You actually might not even notice it's happening. Active labor is when the party really starts, and is what most people think of when they link of the word "labor." Your cervix dilates to about seven centimeters and you will generally start feeling painful contractions. Transitional labor is the final "push" before delivery, and generally the most painful and emotional part of the experience. This is when contractions speed up, become longer, and are often more intense to fully dilate your cervix to the necessary 10 centimeters.
According to Mayo Clinic, delivery — the second stage of labor — comes next, and is the actual process of pushing your baby out of your vagina during a vaginal delivery.
Labor Is Typically Longer Than Delivery
According to What To Expect, labor is by far the longest stage of the birthing process. For some women, early labor can last weeks before you even know it's happening. The Mayo Clinic notes that active labor can vary in length from hours to days, but generally averages out at about eight hours for first-time moms, or less for those of us who have been there before.
In contrast, delivery is intense but quick, typically only taking a few minutes to an hour to complete. Of course, your own mileage may vary, but labor is typically the long part and delivery is a much quicker experience.
Some People Go Into Labor Without Delivering
According to ACOG, some pregnant women experience labor but will never go through a vaginal delivery (or a delivery at all). This experience is called false labor, or prodromal labor, and while it might very well feel like the real thing, it can last for weeks without actually changing your cervix enough to allow you to deliver your baby.
According to the same site, other people who do experience labor don't progress through the phases quickly enough, or the process stalls, so they need medical help. Therapies including pitocin or artificially rupturing the membranes can augment labor to make contractions strong enough to fully dilate the cervix.
If the aforementioned doesn't work, a C-section is usually needed to safely deliver the baby (or babies).
Some People Never Go Into Labor
While it's generally believed that "your body knows what to do" when it's time for your baby to be born, that's not necessarily true for every single pregnant person and, as a result, an induction of labor is necessary. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016 24.5 percent of babies were born after induction of labor.
Ferrell adds that if you pass your due date, more often than not the safest thing to do is to schedule an induction (or a C-section, if induction is not safe for you or your baby). "At our office, we will do an elective induction after 39 weeks if the cervix is favorable," she says. "I also recommend induction after 41 weeks if a person doesn't go into labor on their own, because the risk of stillbirth increases dramatically the longer they wait to deliver after their due date."
According to BabyCenter, other women will choose to have an elective C-section, for a variety of legit reasons, and won't experience labor before delivering their baby.