Normal Labor and Delivery Process
After months of anticipation, your baby's due date is near. Here's what you can expect from the start of labor until the first days and weeks with your new baby.
Signs of Labor
No one can predict with certainty when labor will begin -- the due date your doctor gives you is merely a point of reference. It is normal for labor to start as early as three weeks before that date or as late as two weeks after it. The following are signs that labor is probably not far away:
- Lightening. This occurs when your baby's head drops down into your pelvis in preparation for delivery. Your belly may look lower and you may find it easier to breathe as your baby no longer crowds your lungs. You may also feel an increased need to urinate, because your baby is pressing on your bladder. This can occur a few weeks to a few hours from the onset of labor.
- Bloody show. A blood-tinged or brownish discharge from your cervix is the released mucus plug that has sealed off the womb from infection. This can occur days before or at the onset of labor.
- Diarrhea. Frequent loose stools may mean labor is imminent.
- Ruptured membranes. Fluid gushing or leaking from the vagina means the membranes of the amniotic sac that surrounded and protected your baby have ruptured. This can occur hours before labor starts or during labor. Most women go into labor within 24 hours. If labor does not occur naturally during this time frame, doctors may induce labor to prevent infections and delivery complications.
- Contractions. Although it's not unusual to experience periodic, irregular contractions (uterine muscle spasms) as your labor nears, contractions that occur at intervals of less than 10 minutes are usually an indication that labor has begun.
Stages of Labor
Labor is typically divided into three stages:
Stage 1. The first stage of labor is divided into three phases: latent, active, and transition.
The first, the latent phase, is the longest and least intense. During this phase, contractions become more frequent, helping your cervix to dilate so your baby can pass through the birth canal. Discomfort at this stage is still minimal. During this phase, your cervix will dilate approximately 3 or 4 centimeters and efface, or thin out. If your contractions are regular, you will probably be admitted to the hospital during this stage and have frequent pelvic exams to determine how much the cervix is dilated.
During the active phase, the cervix dilates from 4 to 7 centimeters. You may feel intense pain or pressure in your back or abdomen during each contraction. You may also feel the urge to push or bear down, but your doctor will ask you to wait until your cervix is completely open.