The agony and the ecstasy
The lowdown on labor and delivery
Most first time mom to be are naturally apprehensive and curious about labor and delivery. Concerns include: How will I know when I’m actually in labor? Will it hurt, and how much? When should I go to the hospital? Will I lose control and scream like a banshee, embarrassing everyone in the room?
Compared with the slow, quiet days of pregnancy, labor—with its minute-to-minute changes —can be both disconcerting and exhilarating. While each woman’s labor and delivery is different, we can address some of the more common questions and concerns.
What is Labor?
Early labor starts with the first contraction and can last more than 24 hours. Contractions gradually increase in intensity as the cervix opens. This stage is often broken into three smaller phases: the latent phase, in which pain typically feels like strong menstrual cramps and the cervix dilates from –4 centimeters; active labor, in which contractions accelerate and the cervix dilates from 5–6 centimeters; and transition, during which your cervix dilates from 7–10 centimeters. Transition is usually short —15–30 minutes—but can involve the most intense contractions.
Pushing and delivery, the second stage, begins when it’s time to push and includes the actual birth. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours.
Delivery of the placenta occurs soon after the baby is born and also can be painful.
The First Signs Of Labor
While labor feels different for every woman, signs that it has started can include the following:
- Regular, consistent contractions
- Appearance of “bloody show” —a pinkish vaginal discharge or actual blood
- Gastric upset and the desire to have a bowel movement
- Restlessness and a vague feeling that something is not quite right
- A desire to be alone
- Leaking of amniotic fluid (your “water breaks”)
Women who think they are experiencing early labor shouldn’t rush to the hospital, says Patricia Burch, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist in Lafayette, La. She suggests timing the contractions, from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next. “If you detect a pattern of contractions every 10–15 minutes and the pain isn’t intense, conserve energy and sleep, if possible,” says Burch. “Many women will wake up at night in light labor, stay up, and then come rushing into the hospital the next morning, exhausted.”