Contractions, water breaking, cervical dilatation –these are famous signs of labor, even for those for whom childbirth is not on their minds. But other things happen too and, if you’re preparing to give birth, you’re probably interested in a step-by-step guide to labor, so here it is.
The first stage of labor is known as the latent phase. It is characterized by irregular contractions. Initially, these contractions can be separated by intervals of many hours. The cervix will soften, making it easier to dilate as labor progresses. Keep your energy levels high by staying hydrated and eating and sleeping adequately. If you experience regular contractions, or if your water breaks, notify your obstetrician and get to the hospital as soon as possible. Sometimes, the hospital may send you back, telling you that it was a false alarm, but you must play it safe.
The next stage of labor begins when the interval between contractions is down to 7-10 minutes. By this time, your cervix will have dilated to a couple of centimeters or so. In the delivery room, a nurse will attach a monitor to keep track of your contractions and the heart rate of the fetus. Your obstetrician will stop by to examine you. If a normal vaginal delivery is expected, your obstetrician will let you know if there are any signs that you may need to be induced or delivered by cesarean section. Keep in mind that things can change in the course of labor. For example, if you don’t dilate enough after a certain amount of time, your obstetrician may have to change your delivery plan from vaginal to surgical (cesarean) delivery. C-sections are very common, and if you should need one do not worry.
Labor can take a lot of time and, as it progresses, nurses, midwives, and obstetricians may find that the fetus is not in a good position, and may try to move it by placing you in various positions. If your water doesn’t break spontaneously, the obstetrician may break it with an instrument. You also will be given an oxytocin drip to accelerate the labor. It is possible that you will avoid the need for a C-section, but the doctor will need to employ suction to help get the fetus out through the cervix.
At some point during labor, an anesthesiologist will come in to administer epidural anesthesia. If you are having a C-section, sometimes the anesthesiologist and obstetrician will decide on spinal anesthesia, which is similar to epidural, but stronger. In either case, you can remain awake for your baby’s birth.
As vaginal delivery approaches, sometimes you will be asked to push, and other time to relax, as the fetus progresses through the birth canal. If you deliver by C-section, you won’t have to do anything, but you’ll be able to stay awake.