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The Different Phases of Labor: Part 1

It's fair to say that most individuals know the term labor and understand that it's the body's way of getting ready to push the baby out, but did you know that there are 3 phases of labor? In this blog, we will break down the stages of labor for you and help you better understand what your body is doing during each phase and what you can expect it to feel like.

Early Labor

Early labor is the body's way of getting prepped and ready. For some individuals, early labor can kick right into active labor and for others, it can start and stop for days or even weeks prior to full-on labor beginning. There are lots of factors in the body as well as in the baby that influence labor beginning and until all of these factors are lined up simultaneously, labor will not progress into the active stage.

Early labor is when the uterus first begins to contract in a pattern that is loosely timeable. Contractions could be anywhere from 5-20 minutes apart and in an intensity level similar to a menstrual cramp. At this phase, the cervix begins to open for the first time during the pregnancy. As the cervix opens, there can be some blood associated with the cervix separating from the amniotic membranes. This should be a very light quantity and can cause vaginal discharge to take on a pink tinge. This is referred to as bloody show and can be a good sign that the body is preparing for labor to begin!

Early labor is a great time to incorporate some labor-friendly positions that encourage the baby to come down into the pelvis. Midwife April, owner of Sky Valley Midwifery, recommends the following positions shown below to be performed in this order for 20 minutes each.

Besides the circuit, beneficial things to do in early labor to best prepare the body for whats to come can include trying to take a nap (if it's the middle of the night, sleep as much as possible); eat a nutritious, easily-digestible meal; hydrate; occasionally go on a walk; sit on the birth ball; enjoy some quality time with your loved ones. Early labor lasts until the body gets to roughly 5-6cm.

Active Labor

When the body enters into active labor, there tends to be a noticable shift in the laboring individual's demeanor. Labor becomes 'all-consuming' and the body begins to create hormones that help the birther zone out and cope with the sensations of contractions. At this point, contractions become closer in timing (5 minutes apart or less) and are lasting for a full 60 seconds. Out of those two descriptors, the more important number to keep track of is the length of the contraction. If contractions are not lasting a full minute, it is irrelevant how close together they are, it is still early labor.

The cervix is actively opening and the baby is now steadily navigating the bony pelvis. The body will continue in this pattern until right before it is fully dialated and begins to have the urge to push.

In active labor, a majority of individuals feel the instinctual urge to seclude themselves into a dark space with limited amount of external stimulii. Contractions at this point now have sensation all over the uterus and feel like a large squeeze that radiates from the back to the front. Contractions build gradually in intensity from the begining of the contraction till the end, with the most intense part being in the middle. The best way to cope with contractions is to focus on your breathing pattern and keeping your muscles as relaxed as possible.

This is a great time for a support person to ensure that the birther is still hydrating and relieving their bladder ever-so-often. This is an optimal time for the birther to find a new position every 30 minutes or so that promotes comfort to the birther as well as opening of the pelvis. Some ideal positions for actively labor are sitting on a birth ball; kneeling with the upper body resting on either the bed, the birth ball, or the couch; the lunge position with the upper body resting on a firm surface (alternate legs every 2-3 contractions); laboring on the toilet; left side lying in bed with a peanut ball or pillows between your knees and your legs pulled back (making a backwards C shape with yoru body).


Transition is the final (and shortest) stage of the laboring process. This part of labor is where the final parts of dilation occur and the body begins to create the urge to push. This part of labor is similar to active labor in intensity, but closer together in frequency of contractions.

This is an important moment in time to focus exclusively on keeping your body and mind relaxed. If you have a support person with you, having them coach you through breathing can be helpful to keep your mind from becoming overwhelmed. For some, music is a great way to keep their brain distracted, as well as pleasant smells like lemon or lavendar essetial oil.

Follow along for Part 2, where we will discuss what to expect from pushing and how to effectively push.

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