Top of the page
This topic provides basic information about normal labour and delivery. If you need information on pregnancy, other types of childbirth, or the first 6 weeks after childbirth (postpartum), see:
At the end of the third trimester of pregnancy, your body will begin to show signs that it is time for your baby to be born. The process that leads to the birth of your baby is called labour and delivery. Every labour and delivery includes certain stages, but each birth is unique. Even if you have had a baby before, the next time will be different.
Giving birth to a baby is hard work. It can also be scary, thrilling, and unpredictable. Learning all you can ahead of time will help you be ready when your time comes.
There are four stages of labour. The first stage includes early labour and active labour. The second stage lasts through the birth, with the baby travelling down and out of the birth canal. The third stage is after the birth, when the placenta is delivered. The fourth stage is the first few hours after the birth.
Stage one. The muscles of the uterus start to tighten (contract) and then relax. These contractions help to thin (efface) and open (dilate) the cervix so the baby can pass through the birth canal.
Stage one has three phases:
Stage two. The cervix is dilated completely and the baby is born.
Stage three. This stage occurs after the baby is born. You have contractions until the placenta is delivered.
Stage four. This is the first few hours after the birth.
Having a support person, trying different positions, or using breathing exercises may help you cope with labour pain. You also can listen to music or use imagery to distract you and help you relax. Some people choose to labour in water or take a shower.
Many people ask for pain medicine, such as an epidural injection, which partially or fully numbs the lower body. Even if you plan to not use pain medicine (natural childbirth), it can be comforting to know that you can get pain relief if you want it. Talk about pain medicine options with your healthcare provider.
Getting regular exercise during pregnancy will help you handle the physical demands of labour and delivery. Try adding Kegel exercises to your daily routine. They strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. This helps prevent a long period of pushing during labour.
In your sixth or seventh month of pregnancy, consider taking a childbirth education class with your partner or support person. It can teach you ways to relax and the best ways for your support person to help you.
There are many decisions to make about labour and delivery. Before your last weeks of pregnancy, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about your birthing options and what you prefer.
You can write down what you want or prefer as a birth plan. This gives you a chance to state how you would most like things to be handled. Just keep in mind that it is not possible to predict exactly what will happen during labour and delivery.
Now you get to hold and look at your baby for the first time. You may feel excited, tired, and amazed all at the same time.
Holding your baby skin to skin as soon as possible after delivery for at least 1 hour of uninterrupted time helps newborn health, bonding, and early frequent feeding. If you plan to breastfeed, the first feed will most likely happen during this special hour.
In the hours after delivery, you may feel sore and need help going to the bathroom. You may have mild to moderate afterpains for several days as your uterus shrinks in size.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
During your prenatal visits, talk with your healthcare provider about your labour and delivery options. You may want to write them down as a birth plan. It's an ideal picture of what you would like to happen.
But try to be flexible. No labour and delivery can be predicted or planned. So, give yourself permission to change your mind at any time. And be prepared for your childbirth to be different from what you planned. If an emergency arises, your healthcare provider has a responsibility to ensure both your safety and your baby's safety. You may still share in decisions and can ask questions, but your choices may be limited during an emergency.
When you are writing your birth plan, think about:
This is also a good time to decide whether you'll attend (if you haven't already) a childbirth education class, starting in your 6th or 7th month of pregnancy.
To help you get started on writing a birth plan, fill out the My Birth Plan form . Take it to your next appointment to discuss your wishes with your doctor or midwife.
When you arrive at the hospital or birthing centre, you can expect some or all of the following:
Before your baby is born, plan ahead about:
No one can predict when labour will start. One person can have all the signs that their body is ready to deliver, yet they may not have the baby for weeks. Someone else may have no advance signs before going into active labour. First-time deliveries are harder to predict.
Late in your pregnancy, your healthcare provider will tell you what to do when you think you are in labour. Early labour can be different for every person. At first, your contractions may not be regular, and they may happen only now and then.
You may have signs that early labour is not far off.
The key to knowing when you're in labour is that the contractions start to get longer, stronger, and closer together. You will feel them even when you change positions and are walking or moving around. After a while, it will become hard for you to talk during a contraction. You may have to stop to focus on your breathing.
Many people stay at home during early labour. During this time, it's important to know when to call your healthcare provider.
Share this information with your partner or a friend and they can help you watch for warning signs.
You, your partner, or a friend should call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if you:
Call your doctor now or go to your hospital's labour and delivery unit immediately if you:
You can choose from several types of pain relief for childbirth. These include medicine or breathing techniques, as well as comfort measures. You also can use a combination of these choices.
There are many ways to reduce the stresses of labour and delivery. "Natural" childbirth techniques (without medicine) may help reduce pain and help you feel a sense of control during labour. Consider:
Your options for pain relief with medicine may include:
Some pain-relief medicines aren't the type that you would request during labour. They are used as part of another procedure or for an emergency delivery. But it's a good idea to know about them.
Most babies are born in a vaginal delivery. But in some cases, other types of delivery occur by choice or because of an emergency.
During labour, the uterus contracts regularly to thin and open (efface and dilate) the cervix and push the baby out through the birth canal. It can take many hours or days for the cervix to open all the way so you can begin pushing.
A caesarean section is the delivery of a baby through a cut (incision) in the birth parent's belly and uterus. It is often called a C-section. In most cases, the birth parent can be awake during the birth and be with their newborn soon afterward.
A C-section may be planned or unplanned. In most cases, doctors do caesarean sections because of problems that arise during labour. For more information, see the topic Caesarean Section.
In the past, a person who had one C-section delivery had to have all other babies by C-section. But depending on the reason for your first C-section and the type of incision that was made, you may be able to deliver your next baby vaginally.
For more information, see the topic Vaginal Birth After Caesarean (VBAC).
The process of having a baby occurs in several stages over many hours or even a few days—from early labour through delivering the baby and the placenta. During labour, contractions in your uterus open your cervix and move the baby into position to be born.
Early labour is often the longest part of the birthing process, sometimes lasting 2 to 3 days. Uterine contractions:
It's common to go to the hospital during early labour and be sent home again until you are in active labour or until your "water" breaks (rupture of the membranes). This phase of labour can be long and uncomfortable.
The active stage of labour starts when the cervix is about 3 cm (1.2 in.) to 4 cm (1.6 in.) dilated. This stage is complete when the cervix is fully effaced and dilated and the baby is ready to be pushed out.
If your amniotic sac hasn't broken before this, it may break now or your healthcare provider may suggest breaking it to stimulate contractions.
As your contractions get stronger, you may:
To learn more about pain medicine, see Managing Pain.
The end of active labour is called the transition phase. As the baby moves down, your contractions become more intense and longer and come even closer together.
When you reach transition, your delivery isn't far off. During transition, you will be self-absorbed, concentrating on what your body is doing. You may be annoyed or distracted by others' attempts to help you but still feel you need them nearby as a support. You may feel increasingly anxious, nauseated, exhausted, irritable, or frightened.
A person in first-time labour may take up to 3 hours in transition, and someone who has vaginally delivered before may take less time. Some experience a very short, intense, transition phase.
The second stage is the actual birth, when the baby is pushed out by the contractions. This pushing stage can be as short as a few minutes or as long as several hours. You are more likely to have a faster labour if you have given birth before. During the second stage:
Your healthcare team will be ready to handle anything unexpected.
After your baby is born, your body still has some work to do. This is the third stage of labour, when the placenta is delivered. You will still have contractions. These contractions make the placenta separate from the inside of the uterus, and they push the placenta out. Your medical staff will help you with this. They will also watch for any problems, such as heavy bleeding, especially if you have experienced problems before.
You may be given some medicine to help the uterus contract firmly. Oxytocin may be given by needle or in a vein (intravenously) after the placenta is delivered. Oxytocin is given to make your uterus shrink and bleed less. (This is the same medicine that is sometimes used to make contractions more regular and frequent during labour.) Breastfeeding right away can also help the uterus shrink and bleed less.
The third stage can be as quick as 5 minutes. With a preterm birth, it tends to take longer. But in most cases, the placenta is delivered within 30 minutes. If the placenta doesn't fully detach, your doctor or midwife will probably reach inside the uterus to remove by hand what is left inside. Your contractions will continue until after the placenta is delivered, so you may have to concentrate and breathe until this uncomfortable process is complete.
It is normal to feel excited, tired, and amazed all at the same time after delivery. You may feel a great sense of calm, peace, and relief as you hold, look at, and talk to your baby. During this stage you will be watched closely for any problems.
During the first hour after the birth, you can also expect to start breastfeeding, if you plan to breastfeed.
If you breastfeed, don't be surprised if you and your baby have some trouble doing it at first. Breastfeeding is a learned technique, so you will get better at it with practice. If you need help, ask a nurse or a lactation consultant.
For information about getting a good start with breastfeeding and preventing problems, see:
You may have shaking chills right after delivery. This is a common reaction in the hours after delivery. A warm blanket may help you feel more comfortable.
During the first hours after the birth, your health professional or a nurse will:
You may also have:
In most cases, you don't have to lie in bed the whole time you're in labour. (If you have an epidural or have certain health problems, you may have to stay in bed.) You can choose whichever position feels most comfortable. You may want to walk, sit on a big rubber ball, or kneel. The position that feels best for you may change as you move through labour:
Moving around and changing positions during labour may help you feel more comfortable and might help reduce the length of labour.footnote 5
Birthing positions for pushing include squatting, reclining, or using a birthing chair, stool, or bed. You may find that certain positions are more comfortable than others during the pushing stage. Speak to your healthcare provider about different birthing positions before your labour begins.
In some cases, medical help is required to give birth. For instance, labour may stall, or the baby may need help to get through the birth canal. Sometimes what starts as a routine vaginal birth may end in a caesarean delivery to make sure the birth parent and baby are safe.
Fetal heart monitoring and vaginal exams are standard practice during labour, but other procedures are used as needed.
Sometimes your doctor may need to use different procedures to help deliver the baby.
CitationsHodnett ED, et al. (2012). Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (10).Cluett ER, Burns E (2009). Immersion in water in labour and birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2).Smith CA, et al. (2006). Complementary and alternative therapies for pain management in labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (4).Cunningham FG, et al. (2010). Forceps delivery and vacuum extraction. In Williams Obstetrics, 23rd ed., pp. 511–526. New York: McGraw-Hill. Lawrence A, et al. (2009). Maternal positions and mobility during first stage labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2).
Adaptation Date: 11/27/2023
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2023 Healthwise, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.