Labor Phases Cheat Sheet

Early Phase Labor – Usually lasts 7-8 hours (can come and go for several days):

Contractions are mild, last around 30 seconds, 5-20 min. apart. Cervix is thinning and dilation is between 0-5 cm. Mom is happy, talks during contractions, is able to rest and feel comfortable.

This is a good time to sleep, eat, take a walk, watch a movie, tie up loose ends at work/home and stay hydrated. You will know it is the beginning of real labor if contractions continue and get closer with change of position, hydration, rest, taking a bath etc. With provider approval, laboring at home during this phase is optimal. Pay attention to fetal movement while laboring at home; ask your provider how many movements you should feel in an hr. Last minute packing should be done during this phase.

Remember being rested going into active labor will take you a long way.

Active Phase Labor – Usually lasts 3-8 hours: ​

Contractions are strong, last around 60 seconds, with a 2-4 minute interval. Cervix is thinning and dilation is 5-8 cm’s. Mom is having to work through the contractions, may doubt herself, more emotional, may vomit, and needs a lot of love and support. Change positions, walk, massage, take a bath or shower, and encourage her to rest in between contractions, create a peaceful laboring environment. Use encouraging words, touch, remind her to relax all parts of her body, remind her to empty her bladder and keep her hydrated. If you are planning a hospital birth, this is the time to head to the hospital.

How can I get or keep contractions going?

  • Walk, move around, rock those hips!
  • If you know the acupressure points for stimulating labor, apply pressure there.
  • Increase your body’s oxytocin levels (this is the “love” hormone”, and also is the hormone that causes contractions) through nipple stimulation, kissing or other forms of affection, or wearing a shirt that smells like your partner

With every contraction

  • At least a sip of water to make sure you stay hydrated

Once an hour

  • Try to pee. An empty bladder gives more room for baby to shift down and move into a good birth position. The position change of getting up and sitting on the toilet is also helpful.

Labor is intensifying. How to cope?

  • Breathe deeply, slowly and with intention
  • Make low sounds, and avoid high-pitched noises if possible.
  • Try smelling some lavender oil… very calming!
  • Try different positions. Common ones are hands and knees, rocking on the birth ball, leaning forward on a bed or table.
  • Apply heat, either with a heating pad, heated blanket, or a warm bath / shower.

Transition Phase – Usually lasts from half an hour to one and a half-hours: 

When you feel like you can’t do it anymore, you are likely in the stage of labor called “Transition”. Contractions are strong, lasting 70-90 seconds, with a one-min interval. Dilation is going from 8-10 cm’s. This is the most intense phase. You may feel scared, vomit, feel hot and cold, shake uncontrollably, believe that you can’t do it, cry, feel angry, and ask for pain relief. Mom needs lots of encouragement and reminding that transition means that it is almost time to push and meet her baby. Remind her to take one contraction at a time and that transition is the shortest phase of labor. You should be at the hospital/birthing center at this stage.

Pushing/Birth – Average is 1-2 hours​:

Contractions are lasting 60 seconds with 3-5 minute intervals. Cervix is fully dilated to 10 cm. 

Follow your body’s urge to push. Helpful reminders in this phase are: to let the contraction build, to push in her bottom, curl around her baby, rest in between contractions and try pushing in a different position if necessary. Give her sips of fluid, ice chips and honey for energy. Counting may be helpful. Some moms like to touch baby’s head or use a mirror to realize their progress. Listen to the nurse or doctor for special instructions.

Think of blowing up a balloon. This a good thing to practice before hand, and to have your doula or other support person remind you of while pushing. The muscles that engage in your perineum when you are blowing up a balloon are the same ones used to push baby out. Envision this while pushing to help yourself focus on those muscles.

Trust yourself. Trust your body. Ask for support.

*Remember that above times are averages. Baby’s position, mom’s anatomy, prior scarring of the cervix and many other factors can influence the course of labor. Healthy mom, healthy baby and a positive and empowering birth experience is the goal.

*Always ask the benefits, risks, emergent status, alternatives, how much time you have to decide on issues that may arise during labor. All decisions and choices made in labor, at home or in the hospital must have your provider’s approval.

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