Labor sounds like one big scary event in your life, but it's actually broken down into more sections than you think. It turns out, there are stages of labor as you progress to delivering your baby, and each one is different. So how many stages of labor are there? Luckily, you don't have to do any counting or making sure you head into each stage during labor — your body's pretty good at doing that all on its own.
Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator (LCCE) and Fellow of American College of Childbirth Educators (FACCE) Deena Blumenfeld of Shining Light Prenatal Education tells Romper that, in total, there are five stages of labor: early (latent) labor (which takes you from 0 to 6 centimeters), active labor (from 6 to 8 centimeters), transition (from 8 to 10 centimeters), pushing, and the birth of the placenta. "All women go through these stages, however, the length of time varies greatly from mother to mother," Blumenfeld says.
Each stage is a little different than the last and they all have their part in delivering your baby. "Early labor is the longest part and can be up to 20 hours for first-time moms" Blumenfeld says. "It's also the easiest, least painful part, with many moms not recognizing this as labor. Moms are able to sleep or work through this early phase since the intensity is low."
But active labor is when things start ramping up. According to Blumenfeld, active labor is where mom needs to actively manage her contractions through movement, massage, sound, and breathing, with active labor lasting anywhere from four to eight hours, on average.
"Transition is the time when a laboring mother is 8 to 10 centimeters dilated. On average, it lasts 30 minutes to two hours, sometimes more," Blumenfeld says. While she notes this is the most intense time physically and emotionally for moms thanks to hormones running high in preparation for pushing and birth, this is also the shortest phase of labor. "Moms often recede back into themselves and have a strong internal focus on their bodies. This is good, and it helps them cope with what's happening by tuning out external distraction," she says.
Once you're through those three stages, you're exhausted. But now it's time to push. According to Blumenfeld, pushing is one to two hours for a first-time mom, with moms adding effort to each contraction, and baby is born at the end. The final stage is the birth of the placenta, which happens two to 20 minutes later, Blumenfeld notes.
It's easy to list all the stages out, but it's not always easy to maneuver through them. Some moms may find themselves "stuck" in one stage and unable to push past that hurdle. Blumenfeld says:
Getting 'stuck' without other complications can often mean mom needs to move her body to get baby in a position where their head is well applied to the cervix to aid in dilation. Pitocin, synthetic oxytocin, can also be administered to help strengthen contractions, but nipple stimulation can also add that boost of oxytocin mom might need. Many times getting 'stuck' means we need to be patient.
Regardless of the average times, Blumenfeld notes that there is no right length of time for a mother to labor. If both mom and baby are healthy, waiting is often the best course of action. "In 2014, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists confirmed that OB-GYNs are doing more unnecessary C-sections due to impatience (such as failure to progress) and they needed to wait for a longer time period before intervening," she says. So talk to your doctor if you're hoping to make it through all five stages of labor so you both know what your birth plan entails. (Be prepared, babies also have a mind of their own.)