Woman in labor

Do the mysteries of what to expect during labor and delivery have you feeling anxious? You can relax a little bit when you have insider tips from the pros — and the moms who've been there.

Signs of labor
and how to cope

From signs of labor to coping with early labor, here are tips for the first stage of labor.

What are the stages of labor?

There are three stages of labor: First stage, second stage and third stage. The American Pregnancy Association defines the first stage of labor as the onset of true labor until the cervix is completely dilated to 10 centimeters.

The first stage of labor also has its own phases: Early labor, active labor and transition phase.

  • Early labor phase lasts until the cervix is dilated to three centimeters.
  • Active labor phase continues until the cervix is dilated to seven centimeters.
  • Transition phase lasts until the cervix is fully dilated to 10 centimeters and will mark the time you'll enter the second stage of labor — and start to push.

How long does labor last the first time? >>

Signs of labor

False labor, also known as Braxton Hicks, aren't false at all — they are in fact signs that your body is getting ready for labor. However, here are some signs of labor that signal you're closer to heading off to the labor and delivery room:

  • As your cervix begins to soften and dilate, you will lose your mucus plug. Some women shed their plug in small pieces, almost unnoticed, while others lose their plug in one mass, also known as a bloody show.
  • Contractions are the most familiar sign of labor, which feel like aching in your lower back and transitioning to the front, causing menstrual-like cramps and tightening in your pelvis area.
  • If your water breaks during early labor, note the time and note the color and any odor of the fluid and dial up the labor and delivery desk at the hospital.

Signs labor will be starting soon >>

Tips for the early labor phase

The most important thing you can do during the first phase of early labor is to relax. Your physician will often encourage you to ride out this phase of labor in the comfort of your own home. "I spent my early labor in bed watching Ken Burns Jazz documentaries and taking warm showers at home," shares Latham Thomas, Tender Shoots Wellness. "It was so relaxing and comfortable." During early labor, you should:

  • Drink plenty of water and eat small, light snacks.
  • Try to get some sleep during the night, or occupy yourself with light activities or entertainment, like watching a movie, reading or playing a game.
  • Time your contractions, from the time they start to the time the next one begins.

How to deal with early labor >>

Tips for active labor phase

In the active labor phase of the first stages of labor, your contractions will occur more frequently, last longer and become more intense. To get you through the second phase of early labor:

  • Head to the hospital when contractions are six minutes apart.
  • Use your relaxation techniques, such as Lamaze.
  • Have your partner massage your abdomen and lower back.
  • Change positions frequently — when possible, go for a walk.
  • Play games on your smartphone or card games, or listen to music to distract yourself.

Tips for the transition labor phase

During this toughest, yet shortest, phase of labor, contractions will occur quickly, leaving little time between to rest. Continuing to use your relaxation techniques while you experience one, or many, of the following signs you're in transition:

  • Hot flashes
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Trembling of the legs
  • Intense emotions
  • Feeling like you want to give up

Once you feel the urge to push, notify the nurse, but don't push until you're instructed to do so. According to the Mayo Clinic, pushing too soon could cause your cervix to tear or swell, which can cause bleeding or delay delivery.

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Once your cervix has dilated to 10 centimeters, you've made it through your first of three stages of labor! Once your doctor gives you the go-ahead, you'll soon begin the second stage of labor and push, which is like nearing the finish line in this long marathon called labor and delivery. So hang in there — with a little luck, the moment you've been waiting for is only a few pushes away!

More on labor and delivery

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How to speed up labor
The dirty truth: 6 gross facts about birth no one tells you

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