Parent Time

The First Stage of Labour

(Dilation of the Cervix, or Cramping and Labor Contractions)

It would be interesting to know who decided that there are four stages of labor, and at which point each stage ends and another begins. After all, everyone is different, and while some women will move slowly, temperately through the established stages, others will fairly leap into motherhood by popping out an infant in a few short hours. But let us be conservative when approaching the topic. You are considered to be at the first stage of labor when your beginning, peripatetic contractions settle into a regular rhythm.

These early contractions are fairly short and mild, lasting around a half-minute and feeling like menstrual cramps. You can expect to have first stage contractions about every five minutes once you get rolling, and this early stage of labor lasts a fairly long while-five hours or more, on average.

As you are experiencing contractions, your cervix is preparing for delivery by "effacing", or thinning. The cervix is usually a pillowy organ, somewhat donut-shaped. In labor, its job is to get out of the way by thinning out and dilating to let the baby pass through. In early labor, you can expect there to be some pink mucus in evidence, as your body is preparing to push that baby out into the world (where someday, she will quit school on you.) The first stage of labor is considered complete when the cervix is completely dilated. And not a moment sooner.

It's a good thing that this stage typically lasts around 50% of the time most women are in labor, because it gives you the chance to telephone people, get your partner back from the golf course or supermarket, and hunt down the crossword you didn't finish this morning. The contractions are widely spaced and not terribly uncomfortable, and many women feel excited and full of energy as they enter labor. But like finishing college, shoveling snow or moving from "just dating" to "newlyweds", you want to pace yourself, because you don't really know how long a haul it's going to be. Time in labor varies from woman to woman and from pregnancy to pregnancy, so even if your first baby was a breeze, your second may put you through your paces. And your sister's child may take two days while yours arrives before you can squeeze out of the theater seat. You just never know.

In the middle of the first stage of labor (also called the "active" phase), the cervix continues dilating, reaching a circumference of around 7 centimeters (just under three inches). A combination of mucus and blood, often called the "show" makes its appearance around this time, and it's no cause for concern: it's all part of the fun.

During this phase, contractions last about a minute, and come around three to five minutes apart. The contractions also grow stronger now, so if you were planning to ask for drugs, this will be a good time to make yourself heard. You may want to walk around in the active phase, or have a warm bath to relax you. This phase usually takes around three hours, so there's plenty of time to send your partner out for strawberry sorbet and to sneer at the bikini models in Cosmo.

At the last couple of hours in this stage, your cervix is going to finish its effacement, dilating around two more centimeters in a relatively short period of time, which is called "transition". To achieve this feat, your body will bring on the type of contractions you see in the movies. You'll have a contraction every two or three minutes and each one will last between a minute and a minute and a half. You may at this point decide to put down the magazines and holler for "Mommer". The tried-and-true method is to squeeze your partner's hand until he's yelling too, or to tell him what a bastard he is for getting you in this condition. While you are complaining loudly, your cervix is finishing its job of widening out and disappearing, so that Baby can head down into the birth canal. So try not to be too much of a potty mouth, because little pitchers have big ears. In twenty years, when your child becomes a New Age hippy type and goes through rebirthing, you don't want her first memory to be of you calling the doctor a "&^%%$#".

Sometimes the amniotic sac doesn't rupture in the early stages of labor, but in transition, it probably will. This is the time when your labor coach will start encouraging you to "breathe"; unfortunate, because if you're going the natural-childbirth route, it's also the time you'll most feel like yanking your labor coach down to your pillow and biting his nose off. I have heard women described as "irritable" at this time during labor. You may also feel nauseous, tired, hot and cold and extremely cranky. Once your cervix has dilated to 10 centimeters, you are considered to be at...

Stages of Labor Sections of Interest

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