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Labor and Delivery - Topic Overview

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This topic provides basic information about normal labor and delivery. If you need information on pregnancy, other types of childbirth, or the first 6 weeks after childbirth (postpartum), see:

What is labor and delivery?

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 labor and delivery. Every labor 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.

What are the stages of labor?

There are three stages of labor. The first stage includes early labor and active labor. The second stage lasts through the birth, with the baby traveling down and out of the birth canal. The third stage is after the birth, when the placenta is delivered.

Stage one. The muscles of the uterus start to tighten (contract) and then relax. These contractions help to thin (efface) and open (dilate) camera.gif the cervix so the baby can pass through the birth canal.

Stage one has three phases:

  • Early. Early contractions are usually irregular, and they usually last less than a minute. The early phase of labor can be uncomfortable and may last from a few hours to days.
  • Active. Contractions become strong and regular and last about a minute. This is the time to go to the hospital or birthing center. The pain of contractions may be moderate or intense.
  • Transition. The cervix will open completely. If there are no problems, the baby should be in position to be born.

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.

How can you manage pain?

Having a support person, trying different positions, or using breathing exercises may help you cope with labor pain. You also can listen to music or use imagery to distract you and help you relax. Some women labor in water or take a shower.

Many women 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.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 15, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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