How Much Work is Labor?

What you need to know

The beginning of labor feels different for every woman. You’ll know you’re in labor when you feel frequent and regular contractions, the only true sign that labor has begun. The length of labor varies for all women. The average labor lasts 12-14 hours for a first baby. Labor is often faster for second and later children.

What you can do

Take a childbirth education class. These classes help prepare you for labor and delivery.

Labor and Delivery: What to Expect

You’ll know you’re in labor when you feel frequent and regular contractions. These contractions cause the cervix to shorten and open (dilate) in preparation for delivery.

When Should You Call Your Health Care Provider?

Call when:

  • Your contractions are between 5 and 10 minutes apart.
  • Your water breaks, especially if the fluid is stained dark, greenish brown.
  • You experience vaginal bleeding.
  • You can no longer walk or talk during contractions.
  • You have concerns about your health or the health and well-being of the baby.
  • If you think you may be going into labor, don’t hesitate to call your health care provider, no matter what time of day or night.

What Happens When You Arrive at the Hospital?

Although every hospital is different, when you arrive to have your baby, you will probably:

  • Fill out hospital admission paperwork, including insurance information (it’s common for this to be done in advance through the health care provider)
  • Go to the labor and delivery unit
  • Change into a hospital gown, or your own nightgown or big shirt
  • Be examined to see how dilated your cervix is
  • Be connected to a fetal monitor to time the contractions and check the baby’s heartbeat

What Are the Three Stages of Childbirth?

Stage 1
Labor. This stage begins when the pregnant woman has regular contractions that open (dilate) her cervix. This stage lasts until the cervix is fully opened to 10 centimeters (about 4 inches). This stage can occur gradually with no noticeable contractions over a period of days, but it can also happen in just a few hours with very clear contractions. Every labor is different.

Stage 2
Pushing and Delivery. This stage begins when the cervix is fully open and ends with the birth of the baby. The average length for this stage is one to two hours, but many women have shorter or longer experiences.

Stage 3
Delivery of the Placenta. This stage begins immediately after the birth of the baby and ends with the delivery of the placenta. This stage usually lasts between 10 minutes and one hour.

What Is Labor Pain Like?

Different women respond to the pain of labor and delivery in different ways. For some, contractions may seem like strong menstrual cramps. For others, the pain may be stronger and difficult to bear.

What Can a Woman in Labor Do About the Pain?

Some women prefer to deal with the pain of childbirth naturally, using breathing and relaxation techniques. Childbirth education classes can help you learn these techniques. Most women, however, do get some form of pain relief through medication.

Packing for Two For Yourself

  • A nightgown or big shirt to wear during labor, although a hospital gown will be provided
  • Socks
  • Washcloths and towels
  • Slippers
  • A few nightgowns, pajamas or T-shirts and sweat pants (breastfeeding mothers might find loose-fitting T-shirts or nursing gowns most comfortable)
  • A robe
  • Several pairs of underpants
  • Large, self-adhesive sanitary pads (the ones provided by the hospital may be small and hard to use)
  • Soap
  • Shampoo
  • Hairbrush
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Any other toiletries, cosmetics or hairstyling equipment you want
  • Phone numbers for people you want to call
  • A telephone charge card (you usually can’t use a cell phone in a hospital)
  • Clothes to wear home (be sure they are loose fitting)

For Your Baby

Most hospitals provide the basics for newborns during their hospital stay: a knit cap, an undershirt, diapers and blankets. When it comes time to take the baby home, you’ll need your own things.

  • A receiving blanket
  • Clothes to wear home, including an undershirt, cap and socks
  • Disposable diapers (most hospitals provide these)
  • Bunting or a warm blanket if it’s cold outside
  • A carseat (if baby is to be driven home)

Source: March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation web site:

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